Alcohol Use in Pregnancy

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Last Edited: March 10, 2024
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.

There are serious risks associated with consuming alcohol during pregnancy, emphasizing that there is no safe amount, time, or type of alcohol to consume when expecting. Alcohol can lead to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs), with one study noting 10% of pregnant women in the United States report alcohol use. Key points include:

  • Alcohol passes directly to the fetus, increasing the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and a range of lifelong disorders.
  • FASDs can result in physical, behavioral, and learning problems.
  • The safest approach is complete abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy.
  • Early prenatal care and discussing alcohol use with healthcare providers are crucial for the health of both the mother and the baby.

 Dangers of Drinking While Pregnant

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

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

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

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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.

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.

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.

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.


Q: Is it safe to drink alcohol during pregnancy?

A: No, it is not safe to drink alcohol at any point during pregnancy. Alcohol can pass directly from the mother’s bloodstream through the placenta to the fetus, risking serious health conditions like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs), miscarriage, stillbirth, and developmental issues.

Q: What are Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs)?

A: FASDs are a group of conditions that can occur in an individual whose mother consumed alcohol during pregnancy. These effects include physical, behavioral, and learning problems, with possible lifelong implications such as abnormal facial features, growth deficiencies, and central nervous system problems.

Q: Can drinking in the first trimester affect my baby?

A: Yes, consuming alcohol during the first trimester, even before knowing you are pregnant, can harm the developing fetus. The first trimester is a critical period for the baby’s development, and alcohol exposure during this time can lead to birth defects and developmental issues.

Q: How can I ensure my baby is not affected by alcohol?

A: The best way to ensure your baby is unaffected by alcohol is to abstain from drinking entirely during pregnancy. If you’re planning to become pregnant or think you might be pregnant, it’s advisable to stop drinking immediately. Always consult your healthcare provider for guidance and support throughout your pregnancy to maintain the best health for you and your baby.

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.