There is so much contradictory information about drinking alcohol while pregnant.  I think I could argue a good case for not drinking at all during your pregnancy and also, I could make a case for having a drink now and then, not really hurting anything.  As with most things I tend to come down on the side of, “why take a chance”.  I can 100% categorical tell you that not drinking during your pregnancy will not hurt your baby.  I think that there is some evidence that suggest that maybe having a drink or two occasionally, may not hurt your baby.  So again, without telling you what to do, my opinion is “Why Take the Chance?”

Questions answered in this post:

 

Is it true I that cannot drink alcohol while I am pregnant?

Is it true I that cannot drink alcohol while I am pregnant?

My short answer to this is that I’m not here to tell you what to do during your pregnancy. My job is to give you the evidence-based data, so you can make the right decisions. That being said, in regard to drinking while pregnant, the evidence is unclear. We know that too much alcohol causes fetal alcohol syndrome, and since the problem is that we don’t know what the threshold is for “too much,” almost all experts advise that you don’t have any alcohol at all while you’re expecting.

During the first trimester, it is especially important to avoid alcohol due to the risk of miscarriage and the early formation of your child’s brain. There is also a great deal of evidence that drinking during this time can increase the probability of a premature birth.

If after your first trimester you do decide to drink, you should limit the number of drinks you have to one or two drinks, once or twice a week. Most experts agree that the risk of an occasional drink during the later trimesters is pretty low. However, the more you drink the higher the risk to your baby. Again, my suggestion would be to cut out alcohol completely. Heavy or binge drinking is never recommended during pregnancy (or any time really).

So why is drinking during pregnancy a problem?

So why is drinking during pregnancy a problem?

Believe it or not alcohol is actually toxic to your body. When you drink alcohol, these toxins go through your bloodstream, pass through the placenta, and into your baby. As mentioned earlier, these toxins can cause miscarriage and premature birth. Too much alcohol even increases the risk of your baby being stillborn.

While baby is inside you, he or she is delicately growing a brain, nerve pathways, organs, eyes, ears, and everything else. The toxins in alcohol can have a negative impact on all of these delicate, newly-grown and still-growing baby parts and keep them from coming to successful completion. This type of damage is referred to as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).  Children with FASDs might have the following characteristics and behaviors:

Physical defects

  • Distinctive facial features including small eyes; an exceptionally thin upper lip; a short, upturned nose; and a smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip
  • Deformities of joints, limbs, and fingers
  • Slow physical growth before and after birth
  • Vision difficulties or hearing problems
  • Small head circumference and brain size
  • Heart defects and problems with kidneys and bones

Brain and central nervous system problems

  • Poor coordination or balance
  • Intellectual disability, learning disorders, and delayed development
  • Poor memory
  • Trouble with attention and with processing information
  • Difficulty with reasoning and problem-solving
  • Difficulty identifying consequences of choices
  • Poor judgment skills
  • Jitteriness or hyperactivity
  • Rapidly changing moods

Social and behavioral issues

  • Problems with functioning and coping
  • Difficulty in school
  • Trouble getting along with others
  • Poor social skills
  • Trouble adapting to change or switching from one task to another
  • Problems with behavior and impulse control
  • Poor concept of time
  • Problems staying on task
  • Difficulty planning or working toward a goal

Types of FASDs

Different terms are used to describe FASDs, depending on the type of symptoms. Below are the definitions and descriptions from the CDC’s (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) website.

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): FAS represents the most involved end of the FASD spectrum. Fetal death is the most extreme outcome from drinking alcohol during pregnancy. People with FAS might have abnormal facial features, growth problems, and central nervous system (CNS) problems. People with FAS can have problems with learning, memory, attention span, communication, vision, or hearing. They might have a mix of these problems. People with FAS often have a hard time in school and trouble getting along with others.
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND): People with ARND might have intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior and learning. They might do poorly in school and have difficulties with math, memory, attention, judgment, and poor impulse control.
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD): People with ARBD might have problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones or with hearing. They might have a mix of these.
  • Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE): ND-PAE was first included as a recognized condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM 5) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2013. A child or youth with ND-PAE will have problems in three areas: (1) thinking and memory, where the child may have trouble planning or may forget material he or she has already learned, (2) behavior problems, such as severe tantrums, mood issues (for example, irritability), and difficulty shifting attention from one task to another, and (3) trouble with day-to-day living, which can include problems with bathing, dressing for the weather, and playing with other children. In addition, to be diagnosed with ND-PAE, the mother of the child must have consumed more than minimal levels of alcohol before the child’s birth, which APA defines as more than 13 alcoholic drinks per month of pregnancy (that is, any 30-day period of pregnancy) or more than 2 alcoholic drinks in one sitting.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the US Surgeon General recommend that women should avoid alcohol completely throughout pregnancy. This advice also applies to women who are trying to conceive and breast-feed.

Is there enough evidence that alcohol definitely will affect my baby?

Is there enough evidence that alcohol definitely will affect my baby?

Short answer is no; however, there is also not enough evidence to suggest drinking any amount is safe during pregnancy. Some studies have found light drinking during pregnancy is not harmful to your baby, while other studies have reported any amount of alcohol might be harmful.

What we do have evidence for is the factors that most impact whether or not alcohol will affect your baby are:

  • how much you drink
  • at what stage of pregnancy you drink
  • how often you drink

Again, while researching, I found that opinions vary greatly on the safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. While this may seem overly repetitive, it’s an important enough issue to discuss thoroughly. In my opinion, why take chances?

If I drank before I knew I was pregnant, will my baby be okay?

If I drank before I knew I was pregnant, will my baby be okay?

Many women have a few drinks before they realize they’re pregnant. Try not to worry—there is nothing you can do about the past. The only thing you can do is look after you and your baby in the now.

My recommendation for smoking is the same. If you are a smoker before you found that you are pregnant, don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. Just stop now.

I use alcohol to help me unwind. If I can’t drink now that I’m pregnant, what else do you suggest?

I use alcohol to help me unwind. If I can’t drink now that I’m pregnant, what else do you suggest?

Okay, here is where this post may get preachy. As the child of two alcoholic parents, this subject is really close to my heart. If you find yourself needing alcohol to unwind, you may very well have a problem with alcohol. My husband and I have a rule. If we ever say, “I could really use a drink,” then we know we should not drink at that time.  Both of us had the experience of watching our parents use alcohol as a crutch to cope with life to the severe detriment of their families and loved ones. Try to find other ways to cope with the stresses of life. Some suggestions are:

  • A warm bath
  • Soft music
  • A spa treatment
  • Exercise
  • Reading
  • Sex (safe, with a committed partner…)
  • Meditation

I’m finding it very difficult to give up alcohol. What can I do?

I’m finding it very difficult to give up alcohol. What can I do?

If you are struggling to give up alcohol or think that you might have a drinking problem, talk to your healthcare provider. If they are professional, they won’t judge you. It is their job to help you through healthy pregnancy. Asking for help shows how much you care about your baby and your body.  If you do feel as if your healthcare professional is being judgmental, seek out a new one or seek out professional substance abuse help.

If you would like, please feel free to contact me at jaelin@sheis.com, and I will be happy to aid you in finding resources that can help.


About the Author

Jaelin Stickels

Jaelin married her high school sweetheart (Ted) in 1984 and is the proud mother of 3 grown children (2 boys & a girl). She has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, a Master’s Degree from Georgetown and holds several other professional certifications related to health and wellness; currently, she is working on her Doctorate degree. Jaelin works as a Midwife and Nurse Practitioner with her business partner Andie Wyrick at Holistic Heritage Homebirth in the Woodlands Texas.