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Alcohol & Health
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Updated on September 15, 2023
8 min read

Alcohol and Pregnancy Risks

Your baby during pregnancy will be affected whether you’re drinking wine, beer, or cocktails. Unlike an adult’s body, it can take twice as long for a fetus to eliminate alcohol from their system.

Alcohol in the fetus can lead to several problems, including:

  • Developmental issues
  • Birth defects
  • Health problems
  • Mental impairments
  • Low birth weight
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth

Drinking any amount of alcohol is unsafe during pregnancy. Because of this, health officials recommend pregnant women avoid alcohol consumption entirely while pregnant. Sexually active women who don’t use birth control are also advised to abstain.

If a woman already drinks alcohol while pregnant, it’s never too late to stop. The earlier she does, the better the baby's chance of living a healthy life.

The Effects of Alcohol on Your Growing 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 syndrome or “fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).”

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
  • Low IQ
  • Reasoning and judgment impairment

Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Permanent?

FASD is sometimes called “the hangover that lasts a lifetime.” Babies with 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 older.


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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 ingested by the mother to reach the baby.

From there, alcohol enters the baby’s developing body and affects its organs and body systems. Newborns can also be exposed to alcohol through breast milk.

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Breast Milk?

Alcohol can be detectable in breast milk up to 3 hours after your last drink. During this time, alcohol can be passed on to newborn babies.

However, you can nurse your child if you wait for the alcohol to leave your system completely. Pumping breast milk doesn’t reduce the amount of alcohol inside of it.

The total amount of times it takes for alcohol to be metabolized depends on various factors, including:

  • The number of drinks consumed
  • How quickly the alcohol was consumed
  • Whether you drank with an empty stomach
  • Body weight
  • Metabolism

Is Any Amount of Alcohol Safe to Drink During Pregnancy?

Binge drinking, or drinking anywhere from five or more drinks per occasion, tends to have a more detrimental effect. Any amount of alcohol is generally unsafe, so the safest thing pregnant women should do is abstain from alcohol.

However, you shouldn’t panic if you happen to consume a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy. Like all humans, a developing baby’s reaction to alcohol exposure varies from person to person.

The degree of risk is based on a few factors, such as: 

  • How often you drink
  • How much you consume
  • The stage of your pregnancy

What Does Research Say?

There is little research regarding drinking while pregnant because a controlled study requiring pregnant women to drink would be unethical. Most studies are based on self-reported data, which tends to be unreliable.

One study examined over 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 studies have produced the opposite results, showing that even occasional consumption of small amounts of alcohol increases the risk of complications. Tell your doctor immediately if you drank before or after learning you were pregnant.

Can You Drink Alcohol If You’re Trying to Get Pregnant?

There aren’t many studies on alcohol’s effects on a woman’s reproductive ability. However, some studies show chronic or prolonged alcohol use can affect ovulation and menstrual cycles.8

If you’re trying to get pregnant, you should avoid drinking. It’s reported that moderate alcohol consumption may negatively impact in vitro fertilization.


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Signs that a Pregnant Person is Drinking Alcohol

Most people stop drinking when they realize they’re pregnant, mainly because they don’t want to risk harming their unborn baby. However, someone with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may struggle to quit drinking alcohol. 

Here are a few signs that can help you identify if someone you know is drinking alcohol while pregnant:

  • Isolating themselves from friends or family
  • Denying their alcohol consumption
  • Skipping doctor’s appointments
  • Avoiding prenatal care
  • Visiting prenatal care at certain times to avoid alcohol from showing up in urine samples

Is it Illegal To Drink While Pregnant?

Several states have passed policies regarding alcohol use during pregnancy. Many of these laws provide pregnant people treatment, information, and other services.

Some states have passed punitive laws on drinking while pregnant. These laws are similar but have different specifics.

Other states provide protective custody in response to a pregnant person’s alcohol consumption. Regardless of their differences in scope and implementation, these policies are intended to protect the fetus by helping its mother avoid alcohol.


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Can A Person with AUD Have A Healthy Baby?

It’s still possible for someone with an alcohol addiction to have a healthy baby. However, this typically depends on whether the mother stops drinking alcohol.

Alcohol consumption can negatively affect a baby’s growth and development. Even low or moderate alcohol consumption can still affect the baby’s health.

What to Do If You Have AUD While Pregnant?

If you’re pregnant and struggling to abstain from alcohol, you should speak to your doctor immediately. They’ll 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 yet affected your baby’s development. You could also consider a treatment program or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

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.

How to Avoid Alcohol While Pregnant

Avoiding alcohol while pregnant can be difficult, especially if you’ve been drinking alcohol for a long time. If you’re struggling with AUD, you might be tempted to drink alcohol.

Here are some tips and strategies that can help you stay away from alcohol:

  • Do light exercises like walking, stretching, etc
  • Distract yourself with hobbies
  • Practice self-care with meditation, relaxation, etc.
  • Drinking fruit juices or other non-alcoholic drinks
  • Avoid events that involve drinking or binge drinking
  • Remove all alcohol from your house
  • Stay hydrated
  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Avoid people who enable your drinking habits

How to Help Someone Who Drinks While Pregnant

Knowing someone pregnant and drinking alcohol puts you in a tricky position. Most people don’t want to overstep boundaries, but they know the mother is risking her baby.

The best thing you can do if you find yourself in this situation is treat it like any case 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

How to Approach an Alcoholic Pregnant Person

To convince an alcoholic to quit drinking, you must be careful. Depending on how you approach the situation, you may push them away.

Here are a few things you can do to help a pregnant person who’s addicted to alcohol:

  • Create a safe space
  • Come from a place of empathy and understanding
  • Avoid judgemental or accusatory statements
  • Provide encouragement and positive feedback
  • Avoid using ultimatums 
  • Provide realistic and achievable goals
  • Learn about specialized treatment programs

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

If you want to stop drinking alcohol, consider seeking treatment, especially if you have intense urges during pregnancy.

It’s important to understand that people respond to treatment differently. Talk to a doctor or healthcare professional, and they’ll provide recommendations that suit your needs.

Available alcohol treatment programs include: 

  • Inpatient Programs: Takes place at a licensed residential treatment center and provides 24/7 comprehensive, structured care.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs): A treatment program similar to inpatient treatment that allows you to stay at a rehab facility for a day and return home at night.
  • Outpatient Programs: Less intensive treatment program with a flexible schedule, allowing you to enter and leave the facility freely.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT): Combines evidence-based therapies and medications to treat addiction and prevent relapse.
  • Support Groups: Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery are peer-led organizations dedicated to helping each other remain sober.


Alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to developmental issues and birth defects, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This is a permanent condition that causes physical, mental, and developmental problems.

Due to the risks to you and your baby, you should avoid alcohol completely if you’re pregnant. Generally, no amount of alcohol is safe to drink while pregnant. Even light to moderate alcohol consumption can affect your baby.

If you’re struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD) while pregnant, consult your healthcare provider to find treatment options to manage your condition.

Updated on September 15, 2023
11 sources cited
Updated on September 15, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. “Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.

  2. Ethen et al. “Alcohol Consumption by Women Before and During Pregnancy.” Maternal and Child Health Journal, 2008.

  3. Floyd et al. “Alcohol Use Prior to Pregnancy Recognition.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1999.

  4. Morrow-Tlucak et al. “Underreporting of Alcohol Use in Pregnancy: Relationship to Alcohol Problem History.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 1989.

  5. Streissguth et al. “The Seattle longitudinal prospective study on alcohol and pregnancy.” Neurobehavioral Toxicology and Teratology, 1981.

  6. Henderson et al. “Systematic review of effects of low–moderate prenatal alcohol exposure on pregnancy outcome.” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology,  2007.

  7. Hanson et al. “The Effects of Moderate Alcohol Consumption during Pregnancy on Fetal Growth and Morphogenesis.” The Journal of Pediatrics, 1978.

  8. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Pregnancy and Alcohol Civil Commitment.” Alcohol Policy Information System.

  9. Woodruff, K., and Roberts, S.C.M. "Alcohol During Pregnancy? Nobody Does That Anymore": State Legislators' Use of Evidence in Making Policy on Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol Drugs, 2019.

  10. Van Heertum, K., and Rossi, B. “Alcohol and fertility: how much is too much?.” Fertility Research and Practice, 2017.

  11. Is it Safe for Mothers to Breastfeed Their Infant if They have Consumed Alcohol?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.

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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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