Alcohol and Pregnancy Risks

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Effects of Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy

A pregnant woman does not drink alone. She shares each drink with her baby. Whether it be a glass of wine, a beer, or a cocktail, the baby is also affected.

It also takes the fetus two times longer to eliminate the alcohol from its system. This can lead to developmental issues, health problems, and mental impairment.

Although studies show varying degrees of risk, health officials recommend pregnant women abstain from alcohol consumption entirely while pregnant.

A child exposed to too much alcohol while in the womb may have physical and mental abnormalities.

Any amount of alcohol is unsafe to drink during pregnancy. If a woman is already drinking alcohol while pregnant, it is never too late to stop. The earlier she does, the better chance the baby has at living a healthy life.

The Effects of Alcohol on Your Growing Baby 

Anything the mother consumes, including alcohol, is also consumed by the baby. Exposure to alcohol affects the growth of the baby’s cells, especially in the brain and spinal cord.

Drinking while pregnant puts children at risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). It also increases the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.

Common symptoms of FASD include:

  • Problems with physical development in utero
  • Abnormal facial features
  • Low body weight and short stature at birth and throughout life
  • Smaller head size
  • Sleeping, feeding, and sucking problems as a baby
  • Problems with vision
  • Poor hearing abilities
  • Issues with the heart, kidneys, and bones
  • Coordination issues
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulties focusing/paying attention
  • Speech and language issues
  • School and learning disabilities, such as in math
  • Low IQ
  • Reasoning and judgment impairment

FASD is sometimes referred to as “the hangover that lasts a lifetime.” Babies who have it are more likely to develop physical, behavioral, and social problems later in life.

They also have a higher risk of suffering from a mental health disorder like ADHD, anxiety, or depression. These problems can lead to alcohol addiction as the child grows up.

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How Alcohol Passes to the Baby

Alcohol travels through the placenta via the umbilical cord. During pregnancy, the placenta is the only source of nutrition for the baby. This makes it easy for alcohol to reach the baby.

From there, the alcohol enters the baby’s developing body and affects its organ and body system.

Is Any Amount of Alcohol Safe to Drink During Pregnancy? 

The simplest answer is “no.” You shouldn’t panic if you happen to consume a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy.

That said, the safest thing to do is abstain.

Binge-drinking (five or more drinks per occasion) tends to have a more detrimental effect but any amount of alcohol is unsafe.

The degree of risk is based on how often you drink, how much you consume, the stage of your pregnancy, and your baby.

Like all humans, a developing baby’s reaction to alcohol exposure varies from person to person.

What Does Research Say?

There is not much research regarding drinking while pregnant because a controlled study requiring pregnant women to drink would be unethical. Most studies are thus based on self-reported data, which tends to be unreliable.

One study looked at more than 5,500 pregnant women who reported drinking various amounts of alcohol early in their pregnancies.

It found few links between drinking during early pregnancy and development issues, but researchers only tracked short-term outcomes.

Other similar studies have produced the opposite results and showed that even occasional consumption of small amounts of alcohol increased the risk of complications, including miscarriage and low birth weight.

Regardless of the inconclusive research, the CDC and other health officials recommend pregnant women abstain from drinking alcohol at any point during pregnancy.

Women who are sexually active without using birth control are also advised to also abstain.

Let your doctor know immediately if you drank before or after learning you were pregnant.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse During Pregnancy

Knowing someone who is pregnant and drinking alcohol puts you in a tricky position.

Most people don’t want to overstep boundaries, but they know the woman is putting her baby at risk.

The best thing you can do if you find yourself in this situation is to treat it the same as any type of alcohol abuse. 

An intervention is an effective tool for helping someone with alcohol use disorder, as well as someone who is drinking while pregnant.

If you decide to stage an intervention, do so at the right time and ask a professional to assist you.

An intervention should also be:

  • Planned, organized, and rehearsed
  • A chance to be firm and clear about the problem
  • A chance to share a plan of action for treatment with the person
  • A time to set boundaries

If you are pregnant and struggling to abstain from alcohol, you should speak to your doctor as soon as possible. He or she will explain your options for treatment and help you understand the risks you are imposing on your baby.

Your doctor can help you determine if your drinking has affected your baby’s development yet.

You could also consider a treatment program or Alcoholics Anonymous.

Make sure to disclose that you are pregnant before beginning any detox or recovery program.

If you have reason to believe your alcohol consumption has affected your baby, speak to your doctor immediately.

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Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

There are many treatment options available for alcohol abuse and addiction, including:

Inpatient Programs

Inpatient treatment takes place at a licensed residential treatment center. These programs provide 24/7 comprehensive, structured care.

You'll live in safe, substance-free housing and have access to medical monitoring. The first step of an inpatient program is detoxification.

Then behavioral therapy and other services are introduced. These programs typically last 30, 60, or 90 days, sometimes longer. Most programs help set up your aftercare once you complete the inpatient portion of your treatment.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs)

Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) are sometimes referred to as intensive outpatient programs (IOP). Compared to inpatient programs, partial hospitalization programs provide similar services. These include medical services, behavioral therapy, and support groups, along with other customized therapies.

In a PHP program, you return home to sleep. Some services provide food and transportation, but services vary by program. PHPs accept new patients as well as people who have completed an inpatient program and still need intensive treatment.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient or partial hospitalization programs. These programs organize your treatment session based on your schedule.

The goal of outpatient treatment is to provide therapy, education, and support in a flexible environment. They are best for people who have a high motivation to recover and cannot leave their responsibilities at home, work, or school.

Outpatient programs are often part of aftercare programs once you complete an inpatient or PHP program.

Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT)

Sometimes, medications may be used in alcohol addiction treatment. Some medicines can help reduce the negative side effects of detoxification and withdrawal.

Others can help you reduce cravings and normalize body functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), Acamprosate (Campral), and Naltrexone are the most common medications used to treat AUD.

When combined with other evidence-based therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy), MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery.

Support Groups

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery are open to anyone with a substance abuse problem. They are peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober. They can be the first step towards recovery or part of a long-term aftercare plan.

Updated on November 9, 2021
7 sources cited
  1. CDC. “Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 July 2018
  2. Ethen, M.K., Ramadhani, T.A., Scheuerle, A.E. et al. Alcohol Consumption by Women Before and During Pregnancy. Matern Child Health J 13, 274–285 . https://doi.org/10.1007/s10995-008-0328-2
  3. Floyd, R.Louise, et al. “Alcohol Use Prior to Pregnancy Recognition.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Elsevier, 4 Aug. 1999
  4. Morrow-Tlucak, M, et al. “Underreporting of Alcohol Use in Pregnancy: Relationship to Alcohol Problem History.” Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 1989
  5. Streissguth AP, et al. The Seattle longitudinal prospective study on alcohol and pregnancy. Neurobehavioral Toxicology and Teratology. 1981 ;3:223-233
  6. Henderson, J, et al. “OBGYN.” Obstetrics and Gynecology, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 18 Jan. 2007
  7. Hanson, J W, et al. “The Effects of Moderate Alcohol Consumption during Pregnancy on Fetal Growth and Morphogenesis.” The Journal of Pediatrics, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 1978

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