Effects of Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy

Drinking alcohol while pregnant puts a baby’s development and life at risk. Although studies show varying degrees of risk, health officials recommend pregnant women abstain from alcohol consumption entirely while pregnant.

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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.

Alcohol puts developing babies at risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which produces a range of permanent symptoms. Consuming alcohol during pregnancy also increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and other lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities.

The Risks of Drinking Alcohol While Pregnant 

Babies face a variety of risks when exposed to alcohol in utero, including problems with:

  • Physical development in utero
  • Low body weight and short stature at birth and throughout life
  • Sleeping
  • Feeding
  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Heart, kidney, and bones
  • Coordination
  • Focus and attention
  • Speech and language
  • School and learning disabilities
  • Reasoning and judgment

Is Any Amount of Alcohol Safe to Drink During Pregnancy? 

The simplest answer is “no.” However, the official research is mixed. You shouldn’t panic if you accidentally consume a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy. However, the safest thing to do is abstain and let your doctor know immediately if you drank before or after learning you were pregnant.

Binge drinking (five or more drinks per occasion) tends to have a more detrimental effect on developing babies, 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, but this is entirely unpredictable.

There is not a great deal of research regarding drinking while pregnant because a controlled study requiring pregnant women to drink would be unethical. Women are asked to self-report alcohol consumption during pregnancy, but that data is unreliable.

The information we have regarding pregnancy and alcohol is based on our understanding of fetal development and what has been gathered from women who self-report their drinking. 

One study looked at more than 5500 pregnant women who reported drinking various amounts of alcohol early in their pregnancies. The study found minimal links between alcohol consumption during early pregnancy and development issues, but researchers only looked at 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 mixed results of various studies, the CDC and other health officials recommend pregnant women abstain from drinking alcohol at any point during pregnancy and that women who could potentially become pregnant (sexually active without birth control) also abstain.

Is Someone You Know Abusing Alcohol While Pregnant (+ What to Do)?

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 developing 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 carefully
  • Rehearsed in advance
  • Organized
  • A chance to be firm and clear about the problem
  • An opportunity to share a plan of action for treatment with the individual
  • A time to set boundaries

Whether or not the intervention is successful, it’s a good idea for loved ones of the person with alcohol use disorder to attend Al-anon meetings for support. 

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 also might be able to administer tests to help you determine if your drinking has affected your baby’s development yet. 

Additionally, you should consider participating in a treatment program or attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. 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 and there is a risk he or she will be born with FASD, speak to your doctor about the resources available to help you care for your child.  

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Resources

CDC. “Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 July 2018, www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html.

Cullen, Carlie L., et al. “Low Dose Prenatal Ethanol Exposure Induces Anxiety-Like Behaviour and Alters Dendritic Morphology in the Basolateral Amygdala of Rat Offspring.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 1, 30 Jan. 2013, p. e54924, 10.1371/journal.pone.0054924. Accessed 16 Oct. 2020.

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Updated on: January 4, 2021
Author
Kelly Jamrozy
About
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Medically Reviewed
Annamarie
Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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