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Can Pregnant Women Have Even a Sip of Alcohol During Pregnancy?

Women who are pregnant need to do a lot to keep their unborn baby safe and healthy.

Proper nutrition, sleep, and other accommodations ensure the health of the fetus. Thanks to proper education, most women know they should stay away from high-sugar content, cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. 

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The CDC says that women should not even have a sip of alcohol during pregnancy. But sometimes women drink alcohol before they know they are pregnant. The earliest symptoms of pregnancy may resemble premenstrual cramps, so many women don’t know they are pregnant until a few weeks or even months into the pregnancy. 

The Science of Alcohol and Pregnancy

Knowing how alcohol works is key to keeping yourself and your baby safe. The University of Rochester Medical Center states that the fetus depends on the mom completely until birth.

The fetal circulatory system is different from that of an infant.

  • Oxygen, nutrients, and all materials needed to keep the fetus healthy travel from the umbilical cord to the placenta.
  • The liver is not developed in the fetus.
  • The lungs do not start fully working until birth, when the baby breathes for the first time.

Anything you eat during pregnancy will have an effect on the fetus. Alcohol can affect the fetus much more than it affects the woman drinking it. This is due to the small size of the fetus and its constant state of development. 

The blood alcohol level in the fetus may become higher than that of the mother. It also takes longer for a fetus to digest and get rid of alcohol in their circulatory system, increasing the likelihood of experiencing damage that could affect them for the rest of their life.

Alcohol Levels That Are Dangerous for Pregnant Women

Inevitably, some women may still drink during pregnancy. A few things to consider are:

  • High amounts of alcohol are most harmful during the first trimester.
  • Binge drinking and continuous heavy drinking put a fetus most at risk of developing malformations or being born with medical conditions related to alcohol.
  • Moderate drinking increases the risk of miscarriage.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say no type or amount of alcohol is safe for pregnant women to drink at any time.

Drinking during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). These issues can arise:

  • Memory problems
  • Learning disabilities
  • Issues at school, particularly with math
  • Hearing or vision issues
  • Low IQ or intellectual issues
  • Coordination problems
  • Hyperactivity
  • Facial features that are abnormal

Women who drink during pregnancy may also miscarry. Other risks include the following:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Stillbirth
  • Low birth weight
Sad man surrounded by alcohol in a dark room

Babies with FASDs may be born with small eye openings or very thin upper lips, among other possibly different physical characteristics. The CDC also warns that no healthy amounts of alcohol have been established. 

A September 2013 report from Harvard Medical School suggests that despite the warnings doctors give patients, it is possible that alcohol consumed during early pregnancy may not result in FASDs that alter an infant’s quality of life. 

Drinking alcohol frequently is most likely to spell health issues for pregnant women and their infants. Women who quit drinking as soon as they know they are pregnant are not likely to cause problems for the fetus. 

Women who binge drink or have alcohol use disorders are encouraged to seek additional help. Drinking large amounts of alcohol throughout pregnancy will almost certainly cause problems for the fetus. 

What to Do if You Have Consumed Alcohol During Pregnancy

You may have drank alcohol because you did not yet know you were pregnant or because of another issue, such as alcohol dependency. In either case, your doctor can answer questions and assist you.

Talk openly to your doctor about previous alcohol use so they can monitor the fetus for any possible signs of FASD. A doctor can also refer you to programs that can help you if you believe you have a drinking problem. 

Understanding Women and Alcohol: The Statistics

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released a September 2013 report on the percentage of pregnant women who drink. They asked women to self-report drinking alcohol during pregnancy between 2011 and 2012. These are some findings:

  • Up to 18 percent of pregnant women have been found to drink during pregnancy. 
  • Among pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 44, 8.5 percent drink any amount of alcohol, and 2.7 percent report binge drinking. 
  • Among pregnant women in their first trimester, 17.9 percent of women report drinking, while 6.6 percent report binge drinking.
  • Among pregnant women in their second trimester, 4.2 percent report drinking, and 1.1 percent report binge drinking.
  • Among pregnant women in their third trimester, 3.7 percent report drinking, and 0.4 percent report binge drinking. 

On September 2015, the CDC released a report stating that 1 out of 10 women who are pregnant report drinking. For their findings, the CDC defined this as having consumed alcohol within the 30 days prior to their study. They interviewed women between the ages of 18 and 44. 

The data shows most women understand that they should not drink while pregnant. The CDC’s report found the following:

  • Women between the ages of 35 and 44 drink the most during pregnancy.
  • Unmarried and college-educated women drink at higher rates during pregnancy.

Staying Safe

Women who are trying to get pregnant are discouraged from drinking. However, women who did not know they were pregnant can rest assured that their baby will have better outcomes if they abstain from alcohol as soon as pregnancy is confirmed. 

No matter the circumstance, a doctor can help you keep your unborn baby safe and provide referrals as needed. 

Sources

(March 2018) Alcohol Use in Pregnancy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html

(January 2018) Alcohol and pregnancy. MedlinePlus. from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007454.htm

(September 2013) Drinking a little alcohol during pregnancy might be okay. Harvard Medical School. from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/study-no-connection-between-drinking-alcohol-early-in-pregnancy-and-birth-problems-201309106667

(March 2018) Alcohol Effects on a Fetus. HealthLink BC. from https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/tk3598

(September 2019) 18 Percent of Pregnant Women Drink Alcohol During Early Pregnancy. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/spot123-pregnancy-alcohol-2013/spot123-pregnancy-alcohol-2013.pdf

(September 2015) One in 10 women in the United States reports drinking alcohol. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p0924-pregnant-alcohol.html

Blood circulation in the fetus and newborn. University of Rochester Medical Center. from https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=90&ContentID=P02362

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