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Alcohol Use During Pregnancy: How Dangerous Is It?

4 minute read

Are you getting mixed messages about drinking alcohol during pregnancy? After the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism released a warning on drinking alcohol during pregnancy in 1977, the practice became mostly taboo in the U.S. In recent years, that’s changed. Many women have heard that drinking an occasional glass of wine or two is no problem — even the norm. “French women drink wine while pregnant all the time,” or “our moms and grandmothers drank while pregnant, and we’re just fine,” are common fodder in the mommy wine culture. The truth is, there is no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. In fact, health organizations like the CDC and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that pregnant women avoid alcohol completely. Here’s why.

How Alcohol Affects the Fetus and Baby

Alcohol and pregnancy don’t mix for a number of reasons. Drinking any amount of alcohol while you’re pregnant comes with risks to your baby. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is the most common cause of intellectual disability and birth defects in the U.S. The only way to know if drinking will affect your baby is after the fact, so the safest thing to do is refrain from alcohol use.

Simply put, when you drink alcohol, your unborn baby drinks alcohol. It’s passed through your blood into the umbilical cord. Alcohol can affect the fetus’ developing brain, and put your baby at higher risk for birth defects, premature birth, and other complications like fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Specifically, alcohol exposure during pregnancy may contribute to:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) — This is the most serious FASD. It’s a condition characterized by facial feature defects, organ problems, brain damage, and delayed development.
  • Memory issues
  • Poor emotional regulation
  • Hearing and vision impairments
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Increased risk of mental health disorders and substance use disorders
  • Intellectual and learning disabilities
  • Speech delays
  • Low birth weight
  • Socialization problems

How Alcohol Affects a Pregnant Woman

Drinking alcohol while pregnant doesn’t just impact the fetus, it affects your health as well. Alcohol use in pregnancy puts you at risk for the usual dangers of drinking in addition to pregnancy complications. These effects can be painful and dangerous and may include:

  • Placenta previa – The placenta sits low in your uterus, covering all or a portion of your cervix.
  • Spontaneous abortion – Low back pain, blood and tissue expellation, stomach pain, and emotional extremes due to hormonal changes and grief may accompany abortion.
  • Preterm premature rupture of the membranes (PPROM) – This occurs when the sac holding your fetus ruptures before 37 weeks of pregnancy. It can cause infections.
  • Placental abruption – A condition where the placenta detaches from the uterus. It often comes with vaginal bleeding, stomach pain, and back pain. Placental abruption can cause pregnancy loss.
  • Miscarriage – A miscarriage occurs before 20 weeks of pregnancy and can include severe bleeding, tissue and fluid loss, and extreme emotions due to abrupt hormonal shifts and grief.

Research cannot definitively say how much alcohol can cause problems, but some studies suggest that even little amounts of alcohol affect brain development and cause issues later in life for a child — even alcohol in early pregnancy.

Getting Alcohol Treatment While Pregnant

If you feel like it’s hard to stop drinking during pregnancy, it may be time to take a closer look at your alcohol use. You don’t necessarily need to be a heavy alcohol drinker to have a problem. Feeling like you can’t stop drinking for the length of your pregnancy is a sign that you should talk to a professional. There could be underlying issues like mental health disorders or trauma that make it hard to quit drinking even knowing it can affect your developing baby.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking for women as 4 or more drinks in a two-hour period. Heavy drinking is defined as more than 3 drinks a day or at least 7 drinks a week. If you’re a pregnant woman who is binge drinking or heavy drinking, it’s imperative to reach out for help. Don’t let stigma or shame stop you. Getting help is courageous and it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your baby.

A substance abuse treatment program will help you safely detox from alcohol. Then you’ll address the reasons why you use substances. Once you understand your drinking triggers, learn healthy coping skills, and treat underlying issues like trauma or mental health disorders, sobriety is much more attainable. It’s not too late to have a healthy pregnancy and do the best thing for you and your child.


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