Alcohol and Pregnancy

During pregnancy, anything a woman drinks can affect her baby. Alcohol is no exception. Having too much alcohol during pregnancy can lead to irreversible problems in a baby.

Drinking During Pregnancy
Several things happen to an unborn baby when a woman drinks during pregnancy. First, alcohol enters the bloodstream and crosses the placenta to reach the developing baby. This means that the baby is going to have a higher blood alcohol content than an adult because babies metabolize alcohol slower than adults. This prevents the baby from getting enough oxygen and optimal nutrition, leading to the tissues and organs not developing.

Is It Safe?
The American Pregnancy Association says that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. This is because alcohol enters the baby’s bloodstream in the same concentrations as in the mother’s bloodstream. However, it takes babies twice as long to eliminate the alcohol from their bloodstreams than their mothers.

One of the main concerns of drinking alcohol during pregnancy is that it can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome in the child. Because no research has determined a specific amount of alcohol that causes fetal alcohol syndrome, pregnant women should avoid all alcohol.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Fetal alcohol syndrome causes both brain damage and growth problems in babies whose mothers drink alcohol during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome can cause many problems, including physical defects, brain and central nervous system problems, and social and behavioral issues. The CDC estimates that fetal alcohol syndrome is present in two to seven births out of 1,000.

However, some assessments indicate that 2 to 5 percent of school-age children show symptoms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders is an umbrella term that describes a range of disorders resulting from exposure to alcohol in the womb. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe of these disorders.

Children with fetal alcohol syndrome can suffer from a range of physical problems, such as slow growth in the womb and after birth, kidney problems, vision or hearing problems, heart problems, and small head circumference and brain size. They may have deformed joints, limbs, or fingers.

Children with fetal alcohol syndrome also have several distinctive facial features. These include small eyes, a very thin upper lip, a smooth area between the nose and upper lip, and a small, upturned nose.

Children with fetal alcohol syndrome may also suffer from brain and central nervous system problems, such as poor coordination and balance, quickly changing moods, hyperactivity, and difficulty with memory. They may also have trouble identifying the consequences of their choices.

Finally, fetal alcohol syndrome can lead to social and behavioral issues as the child ages. In school, the child may have trouble getting along with others or making friends. He or she may be unable to adapt to change, and it may be difficult for him or her to switch from one task to another. While doing homework, the child may have problems focusing and keeping track of time.

While not present at birth, secondary disabilities can result from fetal alcohol syndrome. These include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety; alcohol or drug misuse; and problems staying employed or in school.

There are several ways to avoid fetal alcohol syndrome:

  • Women can avoid alcohol when trying to get pregnant. A baby’s brain, heart, and blood vessels all begin to form in the first few weeks of pregnancy, before a woman may know she is pregnant.
  • Women can avoid alcohol during pregnancy. Children whose mothers do not drink during pregnancy are not at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • If they’re not using birth control, women can consider giving up alcohol during their childbearing years. Women who do not use a form of birth control are at risk for an unplanned pregnancy, and they may unknowingly be putting their baby at risk while drinking alcohol.
  • Women can get help for an alcohol problem before getting pregnant. Women who have alcohol problems should not get pregnant without first breaking their addiction. Pregnancy can make it even harder to break an alcohol addiction, and in the meantime, an unborn baby can suffer.

While fetal alcohol syndrome cannot be reversed, the sooner it is caught, the more likely it is a doctor can help reduce the risk of long-term problems in the child.

When Alcohol Is Dangerous During Pregnancy
The first trimester is the most dangerous time to drink alcohol. This is because the facial features and important organs, such as the bones and central nervous system, are all at key stages of development. However, drinking alcohol in the second or third trimester can also be equally dangerous for a baby.

Light Drinking
Even moderate amounts of alcohol can lead to a range of problems, such as miscarriage, low birth weight, early labor, stillbirth, or learning disabilities later in childhood. However, some research suggests light drinking during pregnancy is unlikely to harm an unborn baby.

How Much Alcohol Is Safe?
The study said that pregnant women who had up to four drinks per week had an 8 percent higher risk of having a small baby and a 10 percent higher risk of premature birth. By comparison, light to moderate smoking led to a 22 percent higher risk of premature birth.
Getting drunk can cause serious harm to an unborn baby, so if a woman does decide to drink during pregnancy, she should never get drunk. She should limit her intake to no more than one or two drinks per week.

Alcohol Addiction
Women who suspect they are addicted to alcohol should not become pregnant, and if they are already pregnant, they should get help immediately. Whether a woman is pregnant, there are resources to help break alcohol addiction, including the Addiction Hotline at 1-888-299-5213 and

There is not enough research to determine if any amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy, which is why many doctors recommend staying away from it completely. However, pregnant women who decide to have a few drinks should consult their doctors and only drink in moderation for the best chances of delivering a healthy baby.

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