Alcohol When Pregnant: Effects, Risks And When To Stop It

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Drinking when pregnant may cause issues such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders; therefore, almost all major health organizations recommend expecting mothers and women planning conception to abstain from alcohol. All types of alcohol, including beer and wine, are harmful to the growing fetus. There is no safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed during pregnancy. The only way to have a healthy pregnancy and prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders is by avoiding alcohol.

This post informs about the dangers of consuming alcohol during pregnancy and suggest ways to stop the consumption.

What Are The Dangers Of Alcohol In Pregnancy?

Drinking alcohol in pregnancy can pose risks to both mother and the unborn baby. If you drink while pregnant, alcohol from your blood can cross the placenta and reach the baby. The concentration of alcohol in a baby’s blood can be similar to a mother’s blood. Alcohol can harm a baby’s brain and overall neurological development. This may restrict both the physical and cognitive growth of the brain (1).

The following risks are associated with fetal alcohol exposure (2).

  • Slow growth
  • Miscarriage (pregnancy loss before 24 weeks)
  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Stillbirth (born dead after 24 weeks)
  • Birth defects
  • Mental and behavioral issues
  • Learning disabilities

Behavioral, mental, physical, and learning disabilities due to alcohol exposure in fetal life are called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Neonates with FASD can have alcohol withdrawal symptoms after birth.

Alcohol use can cause the following health risks in pregnant mothers (1).

In addition to these risks, the risk of injuries and falls under the influence of alcohol can also increase. Expecting moms who drink often or binge drink can also experience other health risks of alcohol such as liver diseases, heart diseases, and anemia.

How And When To Stop Drinking In Pregnancy?

If you are planning to conceive or are already pregnant and unable to stop drinking alcohol, get immediate help. It is never late to stop drinking during pregnancy. The earlier you stop, the better for the mom and the baby.

Dr. Mara S. Thur, an obstetrician and gynecologist from Abington-Jefferson Health, Pennsylvania, recommends her patients “stop drinking alcohol right around the time they are attempting to conceive.” “Crucial organs develop before eight weeks of pregnancy – often before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.” she adds.

You may contact your doctor, local alcohol treatment center, de-addiction center, or local support groups for help. In addition, you may use the treatment facility locator in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in the US to find treatment programs in your area.

How Much Alcohol Is Safe In Pregnancy?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are no safe alcohol levels in pregnancy. Abstaining from alcohol is considered safe in pregnancy. This means not drinking is the only way to keep your baby safe from alcohol during pregnancy. There is no exact data available on how much alcohol can cause FASD. So, avoiding alcohol is the only known prevention (2).

Although no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy, obstetricians may ease the concerns of pregnant moms who drink a glass of wine or some drinks before knowing that they are pregnant. However, moderate to excessive alcohol consumption (four to five drinks per day) may cause fetal alcohol syndrome (3).

Dr. Robyn Horsager-Boehrer, Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UT Southwestern Medical Center’s William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital, states that when pregnant moms ask if they can drink a glass of wine occasionally or are concerned if they had a couple of drinks before knowing that they are pregnant, the obstetrician might say it is ok. However, it is not possible to ignore harmful effects such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).

There is no safe time established to consume alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol can pose a risk to the baby and mother in all trimesters. However, alcohol use in the first three months of pregnancy can increase the risk for birth defects such as abnormal facial features. In addition, premature birth, behavioral problems, brain development issues, and growth delays can occur due to alcohol consumption at any time in pregnancy.

What Are The Effects Of Paternal Drinking On A Baby?

A study published in the JAMA Pediatrics says that paternal alcohol exposure can increase the risk of genetic and epigenetic sperm abnormalities (4). Although many experts point out the limitations of this study, they do emphasize the benefits of limiting alcohol consumption for general good health and fertility (5).

A 2012 study shows that moderate and heavy alcohol consumption was associated with sperm abnormalities (6). However, more studies comparing sperm quantity, sperm quality, and congenital disabilities in babies among drinkers and non-drinkers are needed for accurate results.

How To Manage Risks While Preserving Rights?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns about alcohol use in sexually active women if they are not using any contraception to prevent pregnancy. Although controversy is raised on the warning, the US CDC highlights the health hazards of alcohol on fetuses (3).

According to law, in most countries, places serving alcohol have to post warnings of dangers of alcohol to health and to developing fetuses. However, they cannot deny serving alcohol if a pregnant mom orders it. This may give a mixed message to people.

Guidelines of the New York City preserve the women’s right to make their own choice to drink while pregnant or not by allowing serving alcohol if women order it. Although the guidelines are to avoid discrimination against pregnant women, expecting moms should also consider the health of their unborn babies while preserving their rights (7).

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How early in pregnancy does alcohol affect the baby?

Alcohol starts to affect the baby from the third week of pregnancy, i.e., when the embryonic germ layers develop. However, the consumption of alcohol before this period is also not advised as it could lead to early termination of pregnancy (8).

2. What happens if I drank alcohol before I knew I was pregnant?

The risks of low-level alcohol consumption during the initial days of pregnancy are low. However, once it is known that you’re pregnant, it is safe to restrict your alcohol intake. Also, consult your doctor soon after the test results and book a prenatal checkup (9).

Alcohol use in pregnancy is dangerous to both mother and baby. It is better to abstain from alcohol since there is no clear data about how much and when alcohol may affect the unborn baby. Pregnant mothers should stay more positive, eat healthily, and practice regular physical activities to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

Key Pointers

  • Experts advise pregnant women to stop alcohol intake right from they are trying to conceive.
  • Alcohol can cross the placenta and adversely affect the baby’s physical and neurological development.
  • In expecting mothers, it can raise the risk of several health problems, such as dehydration, nutritional deficiencies, and gestational diabetes.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
  1. Alcohol and Pregnancy.
    https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/alcohol-and-pregnancy
  2. Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.
    https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html
  3. Can You Drink While Trying To Get Pregnant?.
    https://www.abingtonhealth.org/healthy-living/health-news/library/articles-related-to-pregnancy-and-breastfeeding/trying-to-get-pregnant-heres-when-to-stop-drinking-alcohol/
  4. Association of Preconception Paternal Alcohol Consumption with Increased Fetal Birth Defect Risk.
    https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/2778779
  5. Expert Reaction to Study Looking at Preconception Alcohol Consumption In Men and Incidence of Birth Defects.
    https://www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-study-looking-at-preconception-alcohol-consumption-in-men-and-incidence-of-birth-defects/
  6. The effects of smoking and alcohol intake on sperm quality: light and transmission electron microscopy findings.
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23321190/
  7. Drinking while pregnant: What we know and what we don’t.
    https://utswmed.org/medblog/alcohol-during-pregnancy/
  8. Developmental Timeline Of Alcohol-induced Birth Defects.
    https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/developmental-timeline-alcohol-induced-birth-defects
  9. Alcohol and Pregnancy.
    https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au/alcohol-and-pregnancy
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Dr Bisny T. Joseph

Dr. Bisny T. Joseph is a Georgian Board-certified physician. She has completed her professional graduate degree as a medical doctor from Tbilisi State Medical University, Georgia. She has 3+ years of experience in various sectors of medical affairs as a physician, medical reviewer, medical writer, health coach, and Q&A expert. Her interest in digital medical education and patient education made... more

Dr. Shashwat Jani

(MS)
Dr. Shashwat Jani is a consultant obstetrician & gynecologist in Smt. N.H.L. Municipal Medical College, Ahmedabad. His field of interests are High Risk Pregnancy, Infertility and Endoscopy. He has written 12 chapters in reference books of Ob/Gyn and published 18 articles in Index journals. Dr. Jani has been invited as faculty in more than 200 national and international conferences. He... more

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