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You may have heard that drinking wine or other alcohol during pregnancy can have dire consequences for your baby's health. This advice is in line with the recommendations of health professionals; According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), there is no safe amount of alcohol at any point in pregnancy. However, there are still some unknowns about consuming alcohol in early pregnancy, even in the days before you knew you were pregnant.
Based on current medical evidence, there is no way to draw the line between safe and unsafe alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The best choices are to avoid wine, beer, liquor, and all other types of alcohol when you are pregnant. However, drinking while pregnant is a decision that everyone must make for themselves, so it is a good idea to educate yourself about the potential risks and effects of drinking while pregnant.
Alcohol During Pregnancy
When a soon-to-be parent consumes alcohol during pregnancy, the alcohol passes from the parent's blood to the fetus through the umbilical cord. Once the alcohol is in the fetus's bloodstream, it affects every part of the body, including the organs and central nervous system.
This is dangerous for two reasons. First, the fetus's brain and other organs develop rapidly and can be adversely affected by alcohol at any time during pregnancy. Second, babies do not have the ability to metabolize alcohol at the same rate as adults, which increases the adverse effects on their development.
Risks of Drinking While Pregnant
Alcohol use in pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage. It also places your baby at risk of a multitude of health problems, including:1
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)
- Low IQ
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
FASDs are a group of conditions seen in children whose parents consumed alcohol during pregnancy.
Characteristics of FASDs include the following:2
- Facial feature abnormalities
- Learning disabilities
- Low body weight
- Poor coordination
- Poor memory
- Problems with the heart, kidney, and bones
- Speech and language problems
- Vision problems
How does alcohol affect my unborn baby?
When you drink, alcohol passes from your blood through the placenta and to your baby.
A baby's liver is one of the last organs to develop and does not mature until the later stages of pregnancy.
Your baby cannot process alcohol as well as you can, and too much exposure to alcohol can seriously affect their development.
Drinking alcohol, especially in the first 3 months of pregnancy, increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and your baby having a low birthweight.
Drinking after the first 3 months of your pregnancy could affect your baby after they're born.The risks are greater the more you drink. The effects include learning difficulties and behavioural problems.
Drinking heavily throughout pregnancy can cause your baby to develop a serious condition called foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
- poor growth
- distinct facial features
- learning and behavioural problems
Drinking less heavily, and even drinking heavily on single occasions, may be associated with lesser forms of FAS. The risk is likely to be greater the more you drink.
How to avoid alcohol in pregnancy
It may not be as difficult as you think to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy, as many women go off the taste of alcohol early in pregnancy.
Most women do give up alcohol once they know they're pregnant or when they're planning to become pregnant.
Women who find out they're pregnant after already having drunk in early pregnancy should avoid further drinking.
However, they should not worry unnecessarily, as the risks of their baby being affected are likely to be low.
Research on Alcohol During Pregnancy
Studies over the past decade have yielded conflicting results about the risks of alcohol use on infants. For instance, a 2013 study compared birth outcomes in over 5,600 women in England, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand who were pregnant for the first time.
In terms of alcohol consumption, the authors found that during the first trimester:
- More than half of women reported drinking alcohol.
- 34% reported at least one binge episode.
- 19% said that they had one to two drinks per week. A drink was defined as one glass of wine or less than a 12-ounce bottle of beer.
- 25% said that they drank three to seven drinks per week.
- 15% reported having eight to 14 drinks per week.
- 5% consumed more than 14 drinks per week.
When comparing all study participants - both those who drank and those who did not - the data showed no association between drinking alcohol before the 15th, a potentially life-threatening condition in which a pregnant person develops high blood pressure.
This study did not focus on mental impairment caused by alcohol exposure during pregnancy.
More recent research has found different results, including a 2020 review of 23 studies that examined the effects of alcohol intake in pregnancy. Data from these studies revealed an increased incidence of low birth weight and cognitive problems in children born to parents who consumed alcohol in pregnancy.
If you know that you drank alcohol around the time you conceived, have a history of drinking, or just enjoy the occasional drink, be honest with your doctor or midwife during your prenatal visits.
Don't minimize your alcohol consumption or say that you drink less than you are. This is especially true if you find it difficult to stop or cut back. Bending the facts to please your doctor will not help anyone, including your baby. Honesty enables you to get help when you need it and make informed decisions based not on fear but on fact.