Women's  Healthcare Topics is a website about pregnancy and your newborn baby.

Effects of Alcohol on Pregnancy

Reviewed by James Brann, M.D.

Can I drink an occasional glass of wine while pregnant?

Learn about the warnings of drinking alcohol in pregnancy.

One of the most commonly asked questions among pregnant women is, "Can I drink an occasional glass of wine while pregnant?" Most pregnant women are willing to do anything to ensure the health and well being of their unborn child. Unfortunately, alcohol and pregnancy are not a good combination. Because experts do not know what the "smallest" amount of alcohol can do to your developing baby, you should avoid drinking in pregnancy. Period.

Giving up alcohol is often however, one of the most difficult 'indulgences' a mom-to-be might face during her nine months of pregnancy.

Pregnancy can be a rewarding and memorable experience, but it does require some sacrifices. The fact of the matter is that no level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy has proven to be 100% safe.

When you drink alcohol in pregnancy, this alcohol travels through your bloodstream, crosses the placenta, and affects your developing baby. This means that when you drink alcohol during pregnancy, your baby is drinking along with you. Unfortunately, because your baby's body cannot break down the alcohol at the same rate as you, he or she may end up with higher levels of blood alcohol. This can endanger your baby health.

For that reason alone you should avoid alcohol during pregnancy. The U.S. Surgeon General and Secretary of Health and Human Services, as well as your physician recommend that you abstain from drinking alcohol during your pregnancy.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommend that women who are trying to get pregnant steer clear of alcohol completely.

Most women are aware that heavy drinking will harm their fetus, potentially causing life altering birth defects. Heavy alcohol drinking can also lead to miscarriage, premature delivery, or stillbirth.

The controversy exists surrounding the occasional drink, and there are no definitive risks truth be told that can be associated with occasional consumption. The consensus however remains among health professionals that pregnant women are far better abstaining from alcohol completely.

Alcohol and Pregnancy: A Dangerous Combination

Did you know that pregnancy drinking is one of the top preventable causes of birth defects and developmental disabilities in babies? Do you need any other reason why you should not drink alcohol in pregnancy?

Drinking in pregnancy endangers your baby's life and makes it more likely for you to suffer a miscarriage or deliver a stillborn baby (an infant with no heartbeat). Other negative effects of alcohol on pregnancy include preterm labor and delivery and fetal alcohol syndrome – a birth defect characterized by poor fetal growth (your baby doesn't grow properly in the womb), abnormal facial features, and damage to the central nervous system.

In addition, pregnant women who drink as little as once a day are more likely to give birth to a low birth weight baby (under 5 pounds, 8 ounces) and their babies' are at increased risk of having problems with learning, speech and language, attention span, and hyperactivity later in life. Women who drink alcohol once a week during pregnancy are more likely to have children who have aggressive and delinquent behavior later in life, compared to non-drinkers.

Sadly, although many women know that drinking alcohol in pregnancy is unhealthy, some expectant mothers continue to drink. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 8 pregnant women in the United States abuse alcohol during pregnancy. (That's over 10 percent of all pregnant women admitting that they drink alcohol in pregnancy.) The CDC also reports that 1 in 50 pregnant women in the U.S. admit that they binge drink. (Binge drinking during pregnancy refers to having more than 5 alcoholic drinks in one sitting.)

Alcohol abuse and binge drinking during pregnancy put your baby at increased risk of being born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder – fetal alcohol syndrome is one of these disorders. In the United States, up to 40,000 infantsare born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder every year.

What is fetal alcohol syndrome?

Heavy alcohol drinking (5 or more drinks on one occasion), during early pregnancy, can cause a spectrum of birth defects know as the fetal alcohol syndrome. Moderate drinking throughout your pregnancy may also produce problems.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a combination of physical and mental birth defects that can result when a women drinks alcohol heavily during her pregnancy. When a pregnant woman has a glass of wine, beer, or mixed drink the alcohol will pass through the placenta to the developing baby. The baby may suffer life long consequences as a result of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Fetal alcohol syndrome can cause brain damage, deformities of the baby's face, and growth defects. Defects may be seen in the baby's heart, liver, and kidneys. The baby may develop vision and hearing problems as well. Children with fetal alcohol syndrome have difficulties with learning, attention, memory, and problem solving.

What is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder?

Moderate drinking during pregnancy has been linked with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). This term covers a wide range of disorders that can occur in babies and children who are exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. The disorders involve physical, mental, behavioral, and learning disabilities.

Among the more common fetal alcohol spectrum disorders include:

  • Alcohol related neural developmental disorder - also called ARND, this disorder typically manifests as functional or cognitive impairments.

  • Alcohol related birth defects - or ARBD, are birth defects that may include heart, skeleton, kidney and other organ malformations.

  • Fetal alcohol effects - perhaps the most common, FAE is a term used to describe several different conditions that do not meet the criteria for full blown fetal alcohol syndrome.

No level of alcohol use during pregnancy can be recommended as safe. Everything a mother consumes passes through her placenta to her unborn child, and therefore has the potential to affect the fetus in several different ways. Read more about alcohol and foods to avoid during pregnancy.

Is any kind of alcohol safe during pregnancy?

No form of alcohol can be recommended during pregnancy. A mixed drink, glass of wine and can of beer contain roughly the same amount of alcohol, and may incur an equal amount of damage to your unborn fetus.

You will want to stay away from drinks that are labeled "nonalcoholic" during pregnancy too. "Nonalcoholic" beer and wine contain a trace amount of alcohol – typically less than a percent. You should stick to only drinks labeled "alcohol-free."

While drinking an occasional glass of nonalcoholic beer or wine will probably not harm your baby, it is something you should be aware of, especially if you have a problem with alcohol and you drink these "nonalcoholic" drinks in large amounts.

I just found out I am pregnant and have been drinking. What should I do?

If you drank occasionally before realizing that you were pregnant, chances are you did not harm your baby. You should immediately abstain from drinking however and continue to do so throughout your pregnancy.

Is it ok to drink while breastfeeding?

Generally the medical community recommends that while breastfeeding women abstain from alcohol use. Small amounts of alcohol can be passed into the breast milk and onto your newborn infant.

Just like you avoided drinking in pregnancy, you should abstain from drinking when you are nursing. Studies have found that the breastfed babies of mothers who drank alcohol were delayed in basic motor skills – such as crawling and walking.

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