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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.

A pregnant woman does not drink alone. She shares each alcoholic beverage with her baby. Whether it be a glass of wine, a beer, or a cocktail, the baby is also affected. However, it actually takes the fetus two times longer to eliminate the alcohol from its system. This can lead to developmental issues, health problems, and other serious problems.

Consuming alcohol anytime while pregnant, even before a woman knows she is pregnant, can lead to central nervous system (CNS) problems. This includes behavioral problems, low birth weight, and other irregular features. Drinking alcohol anytime during the first three months of pregnancy can lead to abnormal facial features as well.

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.

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.

Common characteristics among children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (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 with this condition are more likely to develop learning, vision, hearing, 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.

It is not just pregnant women who are responsible for ensuring that they do not drink. Her partner or spouse should be supportive and take the responsibility of helping her abstain from alcohol during the pregnancy. It helps if a pregnant woman’s partner also abstains from alcohol.

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.

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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 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.  

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

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

  • Inpatient ProgramsInpatient 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. However, 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.

Resources

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CDC. “Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 July 2018

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 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10995-008-0328-2

Floyd, R.Louise, et al. “Alcohol Use Prior to Pregnancy Recognition.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Elsevier, 4 Aug. 1999

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

Streissguth AP, et al. The Seattle longitudinal prospective study on alcohol and pregnancy. Neurobehavioral Toxicology and Teratology. 1981 ;3(2):223-233

Henderson, J, et al. “OBGYN.” Obstetrics and Gynecology, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 18 Jan. 2007

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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