Alcohol Use in Pregnancy

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Last Edited: September 7, 2020

Bianka Fisk

Clinically Reviewed
Edward Jamison, MS, CAP, ICADC, LADC

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and certified by an addiction professional.

 Dangers of Drinking While Pregnant

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and a range of lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities.

If a woman is pregnant, or if she is trying to conceive, she should not consume any alcoholic drink until after the birth of her child and she has stopped breastfeeding. While there is an old wives’ tale suggesting that one glass of red wine per day is actually good for an unborn child, caution should be exercised. It has been found that drinking regularly while pregnant can result in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The March of Dimes has explained that the fetus of a mother who is an active alcoholic can develop various emotional, mental, and developmental disorders, some of them permanent. If you believe that you are pregnant it is advisable to immediately stop drinking and continue to abstain from alcohol while you are pregnant and nursing.

The CDC  has stated that around 0.2 to 1.5 of every 1,000 live births are infants with FAS. Researchers have also determined through physical examinations that between 2 percent and 5 percent of births are affected in some way by FAS. – Read More

Many women get pregnant unexpectedly. Unfortunately, some of these women are alcoholics who get pregnant. Quitting alcohol use when you’re an alcoholic is not that easy. When a woman is pregnant, anything her body experiences, her baby experiences. The stages of Alcohol withdrawals can be dangerous and may need to be managed in a medical setting under supervision.

Also check out Effects of Fioricet While Pregnant

Effects of Drinking While Pregnant Effect on the Baby

effects of drinking while pregnant infographic

When a pregnant woman drinks a small amount of hard liquor, a bottle of beer, or a glass of wine, it will get to the bloodstream of the fetus just as non-alcoholic drinks and food do. The blood alcohol percentage in a fetus is just as high as in that of the mother. There is also a mistaken belief that once the baby is fully formed in the womb, the mother can drink without risk again, which is simply untrue. Although the baby may be completely formed, the body systems, organs, and brains are still immature, which means they may not be able to cope with alcohol exposure.

Anything a pregnant woman consumes enters the placenta through the umbilical cord. When pregnant, an unborn baby is provided with all the nutrients it needs to grow and develop solely through the placenta. This means that it is very easy for alcohol to also enter the baby’s system. The March of Dimes has also stated that through the placenta, the alcohol will enter the developing body of the baby and that this affects every element of the body system, including the organs.

To Read more on Staying Healthy During Your Pregnancy, Click Here.

Drinking While Spouse is Pregnant

It does take two to make a baby, and this means that the responsibility to not drink solely rests with the pregnant woman alone. Her husband or partner should also take some responsibility in this, supporting her through her abstinence while pregnant. This is a recommendation made by the Texas A&M Health Science Center. They have also stated that they recommend the partner or husband to refrain from alcohol as well, as this will help the pregnant woman maintain her abstinence. There is a suggestion that the amount of alcohol that the partner consumes can also affect the development of a child. This is particularly true if the partner is a heavy drinker. There is a claim that even if the pregnant woman remains completely sober, but her partner is a regular and/or heavy drinker, then the baby may experience physical, intellectual, or mental problems after birth.

This came as a shock to many people, but the reasons for these potential problems are due to the lowered quality of male sperm in heavy drinkers. The sperm is responsible for the fertilization of the egg. If the sperm is affected by alcohol, the newly fertilized embryo will be just as equally affected.

4.5 percent of pregnant women between 18 and 24 reported drinking.

Potential Effects on the Baby when Drinking Alcohol while Pregnant

There are a number of very specific risks that come to a woman who drinks a lot of alcohol while pregnant. These include:

  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Birth defects, and particularly heart defects and hearing issues
  • Miscarriage, which means the pregnancy terminates itself before 20 weeks gestation
  • Stillbirth, which means the baby dies in utero after 20 weeks gestation
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FAS, leads to a number of distinctive features in the baby, which affect every element of their body. In terms of physical features, you can expect:

  • A small head
  • A small body compared to peers
  • A ridge, smooth to the touch, between the upper lip and the nose
  • Low weight
  • Problems with hearing, kidneys, vision, the skeletal system, and the heart (reported by the CDC)

FAS does not solely affect physical appearance. There are also significant cognitive issues. These include:

  • Attention difficulties
  • Poor memory
  • Learning disabilities
  • Problems with math skills
  • Low IQ
  • Speech and language problems
  • Poor judgment skills
  • Behavioral problems
  • Hyperactivity
Drinking in Early Pregnancy

Pregnancies are not always planned, and planned pregnancies often take some time to be established. The vast majority of women will have had a little drink before they fall pregnant, or before they realize that they are pregnant. If you drink alcohol during early pregnancy, do not panic.

It is certainly true that it is not good to drink any alcohol when you are trying to conceive, or pregnant. However, doing so is fairly common. Research from the Detroit Wayne State University School of Medicine has determined that around 50% of women in this country consume alcohol, and that 50% of pregnancies are not planned. This means that it is likely that many women will have had some drinks before they realize that they are pregnant. While this may be worrying, women are encouraged to not dwell on this too much and to stop drinking alcohol as soon as they find out they are pregnant. They should also inform their healthcare professional about their alcohol consumption and how much alcohol they had been drinking before finding out that they are pregnant.

Ensuring the Health of the Baby

In an ideal situation, you will have had a full health check before falling pregnant, so your pregnancy will start as well as possible. This also means taking prenatal vitamins like folic acid, one month before you conceive. This helps to reduce the chance of the baby having neural tube defects. You should also have quit smoking and drinking. The healthier you are when you fall pregnant, the lower the risk of birth problems. The earlier in the pregnancy that babies are exposed to alcohol, the more likely it will be that they will have more significant birth defects. Other factors also matter in terms of having a healthy baby, such as good prenatal care and proper nutrition. Make sure you know what you can eat, and what exercises you can do with your OB/GYN.

Effect of Genes on Predisposition to FAS

At the same time, it is important to realize that not every baby born to a mother who drinks will inevitably have FAS; genetic play an important role. Some women are genetically disposed to have a lower likelihood of their child developing FAS even when exposed to alcohol, while other women have the opposite gene. Older women, and heavier set women are more likely to have babies with severe forms of FAS than others. This is because fat has less capacity to absorb alcohol, therefore making blood alcohol levels rise more quickly than usual.

Effect of Binge Drinking while Pregnant

Then, there is binge drinking. The NIAAA defines this as having at least four drinks in one session for a woman. Pregnant women who regularly binge drink increase the chance of birthing a baby with severe FAS symptoms. If a woman is a heavy drinker, which means she binge drinks more than five times per month, she also increases the chances of FAS developing in her baby.

Potential Problems with Women Who Are Alcoholics

When people drink heavily, such as an alcoholic, their behavior changes as well. It is common for alcoholics to engage in promiscuous behavior and not protect themselves from becoming pregnant. If these women don’t realize that they are pregnant, they are likely to continue to drink. Alcoholics may find it virtually impossible to not drink, even if they do know that they are pregnant. It is also common for women in alcoholic relationships to be trapped in domestic violence and for them to hide their pregnancy in an effort to keep the peace. For more information on saving your baby from FAS, give us a call: (866) 578-7471.

Among pregnant women, 1 in 10 reported any alcohol use and 1 in 33 reported binge drinking in the past 30 days.

Prenatal Alcohol Exposure – Baby’s Central Nervous System

An unborn baby can start to notice the effects of alcohol exposure in the first few weeks of pregnancy. Significant research has been conducted by Emory University, which showed that by week 3 there is a noticeable effect of alcohol exposure on the central nervous system and heart of the unborn child. Should alcohol exposure continue, the eyes, legs, arms, and heart of the fetus can be affected as well.

By six weeks gestation, the ears and teeth start to be affected. By this time, the mother should suspect that she is pregnant, although it may not yet have been confirmed. Should she continue to consume alcohol, the the external genitalia and palate start to be affected. This development continues until 12 weeks gestation, or three months.

Throughout the second and third trimester, frequent exposure to alcohol will negatively affect the brain. This means that the behavioral, learning, and cognitive effects of FAS start to develop before the baby is even born.

If a woman wants to conceive, she should immediately stop drinking and not start again until after she has finished nursing her child – if at all. If the mother is an alcohol addict, she should seek help for her addiction immediately, allowing her to recover before any damage is done to her unborn child.

According to the CDC, two specific disorders can occur as a result of alcohol exposure: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and FAS. Within these two conditions, there are sub-conditions:

  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder
  • Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure

Those who suffer from pFAS often only have mild symptoms of FAS. ARND children have significant central nervous system problems. This can include cognitive and behavioral problems, as explained by the NIAAA. ARND children often do not have facial abnormalities or stunted growth. ND-PAE children usually have central nervous system issues, as well as signs of prenatal exposure to alcohol. They cannot control their behavior, find it difficult to adapt to anything new, and have significant cognitive issues. Save your child from lifelong problems, give us a call, get help today. Our number is:(866) 578-7471.

Among pregnant women, alcohol use was highest among those aged 35-44 years (18.6 percent).

Risks of Alcohol to the Pregnant Woman

It is important to understand the negative effects alcohol can have on the pregnant woman herself. This is particularly true if she is an alcoholic, as she may smoke, have poor nutrition, or be underweight. The NIAAA has also stated that alcoholic mothers often have had multiple pregnancies, which means multiple children may have developed FAS. All of this makes it more likely for any further children to develop more severe forms of FAS.

A woman may come from a home in which drinking is the norm. This means it can be very difficult for her to abstain from alcohol while she is pregnant. After birth, she may have difficulty looking after and parenting her new baby. This has significant negative effects on both her and the unborn child.

Those who are addicted to alcohol should never try to stop without health care support. They must go through a period of medical detox, as alcohol withdrawal can have life threatening consequences. If the mother is already pregnant, she will need further specialized care to ensure that both she and her unborn baby are safe.

According to estimates by the CDC, it is believed between 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent of babies are born with full blown FAS. There are believed to be at least three times as many FASD cases. Very often, children only have subtle damage that doesn’t become apparent until they go to school. By calling (866) 578-7471 you can determine what your treatment options are and how you will proceed with your rehabilitation.