Alcohol and Pregnancy: Effects and Dangers

The media goes into a frenzy when they spot an actress not drinking alcohol at a party. Everybody just seems to know instantly that she’s pregnant.

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Miranda is not an alcohol addict, but she loves her merlot and champagne. And she has just found out that she has conceived. But she is confused. She had looked up on the internet and found websites that say it is okay to have a little wine or a glass of beer during pregnancy.

Miranda wouldn’t mind giving up alcohol for the sake of her baby. But she would also love it if she can drink on rare occasions during her pregnancy. She wants to know for sure. In this article we will outline the dangers of alcohol use during pregnancy.

Alcohol and Pregnancy Facts

Alcohol is one of the many substances that can have a severe negative impact on fetal development. As we all know, the liver is the organ that filters all toxins that you eat. When a pregnant woman drinks, it does not only pass through her liver. However, it also affects the baby’s undeveloped liver, which can negatively affect its development. Furthermore, it stays in the baby’s body much longer. For this reason, there is no safe amount a woman can drink during her pregnancy. As a result, any amount of this substance can reach the baby through the placenta and cause serious damages.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drinking alcohol during pregnancy can adversely affect the physical and mental growth and development of the baby.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is associated with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), a group of irreversible diseases that cause physical abnormalities and impair mental, functional, psychological, behavioral, and cognitive development in the baby.

Dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy period include:

• Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs)
• Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
• Mental impairment
• Physical defects to the infant
• Miscarriage
• Premature birth
• Low birth weight
• Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

The statistics on FASDs are grim:

  • According to the CDC, as many as 2 to 5 out of 100 school-aged children in the United States have a form of FASD.
  • About 6 to 9 out of 1,000 school-aged children in the U.S. are afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a severe type of FASD.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is the ONLY cause of FASDs in children.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy also increases the risk of:

  • Miscarriage
  • Premature birth
  • Stillbirth
  • Low birthweight
  • Sudden Infant Death syndrome

Though many women know that drinking alcohol pregnancy is not a good idea, there seems to be an equal number of women who carry on drinking, and even binge-drink, when they are pregnant.

The CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System study (2011-2013) uncovered the following facts:

  • About 1 in 10 pregnant women reported drinking alcohol during the past month.
  • About 1 in 33 pregnant women reported binge drinking during the past month.
  • Pregnant women who indulged in binge drinking during the previous month reported an average of 4.6 such episodes.
  • Amongst pregnant women, those aged between 35-44 years and were college graduates reported the highest instance of alcohol use.

Alcohol And Pregnancy

These statistics are staggering because they suggest misleading information is more prevalent than you would have imagined. For instance, many women tend to believe that it is okay to drink a glass of wine once in a while during pregnancy. Even some doctors give the green signal to an occasional glass of wine! Then there is a widespread belief that it is okay to drink after the first trimester.

Is there a safe limit to drink during pregnancy?

No, there is no safe limit of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Any amount of alcohol can be risky to the developing body of the baby. The effect of alcohol on the baby depends on different factors like genetic makeup, the mother’s level of metabolism, and more.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Ethanol abuse during pregnancy can lead to FAS. Babies who are born with FAS have atypical facial features, and many health issues. Additionally, they may develop attention disorder, anger issues, and mood problems that can emerge later in life.

Other negative effects alcohol can have on the fetus are:

  • Microcephaly (small head and brain)
  • Heart problems
  • Low birth weight
  • Intellectual disability
  • Spine, kidney, and liver disease

Some of the most characteristic facial features of babies with FAS are:

  • Small nose
  • Abnormal ears
  • Small chin
  • Thin upper lip
  • Epicanthal folds
  • Small palpebral fissures

Unfortunately, children with FAS grow slower than their peers and have delayed development of motor skills and language. Moreover, these children tend to have memory problems, learning difficulties, and seizures.

There are no diagnostic tests for FAS. Therefore, there are numerous undiscovered cases. They diagnose the condition based on visible signs of symptoms.

Due to many developmental problems, children with FAS in most cases have to attend special education classes. In addition, their families often require professional assistance in the form of social, medical, and psychological services.

Other treatment options for children with FAS include:

  • Speech therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Education for parents
  • Mental health counseling

Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)

Meanwhile, not all children with pFAS have growth problems and facial abnormalities. This makes it disorder even harder to diagnose.

However, most children with pFAS have severe neurological, structural, and functional brain abnormalities. Also, one of the diagnostic criteria is evidence of the abuse during pregnancy.

Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)

Diagnostic criteria for ARND include:

  • Neurodevelopmental issues
  • Self-regulation problems
  • Adaptive skills issues
  • Behavioral problems later in life

Alcohol- Related Birth Defects (ARBD)

ARBD represent any physical defect related to alcohol use during pregnancy such as:

  • Kidney issues
  • Heart problems
  • Ear and eye malformations
  • Skeletal defects

Statistics of Women Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy

In the US, 10% of women drink at the very end of their pregnancy. About 20-30% drink it at some point during their pregnancy. Unfortunately, 47% of women in America suffer from alcoholism while being pregnant.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 1/10 women drink during pregnancy, and 1/50 binge drink. Additionally, 1 in every five children may have FASD. For more information about statistics visit the CDC website.

There is NO Safe Limit to Drink During Pregnancy

When a would-be mom drinks alcohol, it crosses the placental barrier and is absorbed by the blood and tissues of her unborn baby. According to the CDC, any amount of alcohol is harmful to the developing baby because:

  • The fetus is still developing. It is small in size and its organs have not yet developed, so the fetus is unable to break down alcohol as quickly as an adult. The result is that a high volume of alcohol remains in its bloodstream for a long time and impairs the normal development of the various organs.
  • Women metabolize alcohol at different rates. Different women have different levels of an enzyme that helps in the metabolism of alcohol. Those who have low levels of this enzyme break down alcohol slowly. Because more alcohol circulates in their blood, their unborn babies are also exposed to higher amounts of the toxin.
  • Babies have different genetic makeups. Some babies are affected more by alcohol than others due to their individual genetic makeup. Differences in genes also determine how adults are affected by alcohol. For instance, some adults get intoxicated just after one drink or experience more severe hangover symptoms than another person who had the same number of drinks.

It doesn’t matter if you take just a sip of champagne or down a full bottle of whiskey. A combination of one or more of the above factors can harm your unborn child before you realize it.

So Miranda, just because your sister drank beer and wine often during her pregnancy and her kid turned out fine, there is no reason to assume that you can carry on drinking during the next nine months!

There is also NO right time to drink during pregnancy.

Drinking Alcohol During the 1st Trimester of Pregnancy

According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol is most harmful to the baby during the first three months of pregnancy. The baby’s facial features, anatomical structures, and the brain and the spinal cord develop during this period.

An increase in alcohol consumption by one drink per day during the first trimester of pregnancy causes:

  • A 25 percent increase in the chance of the baby being born with abnormal facial features, like a smooth ridge between the nose and the upper lip and narrow eye openings
  • A 12 percent more likelihood of the baby having a smaller-than-average head
  • A 16 percent increase in the chance of the baby having low birthweight
  • An increased risk of neurological abnormalities, a development that is usually associated with the presence of facial abnormalities
  • An increased risk of damage to the brain circuitry and loss of certain types of nerve cells, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

According to researchers at the University of California, San Diego, the developing fetus is harmed the most when the mother drinks during the second half of the first trimester.

Drinking Alcohol During the 2nd Trimester of Pregnancy

There seems to be a popular belief that drinking alcohol is safe after the first trimester. But researchers warn that the brain and spinal cord of the baby develop throughout pregnancy, so alcohol consumption at any stage can harm the baby. According to the Institute of Medicine, pre-natal exposure to alcohol can cause severe neurological defects in the child.

Drinking alcohol during the second trimester of pregnancy leads to:

  • A 68 percent increase in the risk of the baby being born smaller than average
  • An increased risk of complications like abnormal brain development, breathing trouble, and difficulty regulating body temperature
  • An increased risk of neurological abnormalities

Drinking Alcohol During the 3rd Trimester of Pregnancy

Is it safe to drink during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy?

No, it is not safe to drink alcohol anytime during the whole pregnancy period. Drinking alcohol during the 3rd trimester will only increase the risk of having premature delivery and cause serious physical complications to the infant.

Besides the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) continuing to develop, the baby’s lungs also mature during the third trimester of pregnancy. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol during this period leads to:

  • Increased risk of premature delivery
  • An increased risk of physical complications in the baby that necessitates a longer hospital stay and supervision by a critical care team

How to Stay Away from Alcohol During Pregnancy

There is NO safe limit to drink during pregnancy. There is NO right time to drink either during any of the trimesters. Keep these in mind and follow the tips below to stay away from alcohol during pregnancy:

  • Stay away from ALL drinks containing alcohol, which includes wine, beer, wine coolers, mixed drinks, and liquor. NO alcoholic drink is safe for your unborn child.
  • Stop drinking as soon as you decide to become pregnant. According to the CDC, about half of the pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, and many women do not realize they have conceived till 4-6 weeks have elapsed.
  • Stop drinking as soon as you realize you are pregnant. The more you drink, the greater is the risk to your unborn baby.
  • If you find yourself tempted, stay away from events where drinks are involved.
  • Request your friends, family members, and/or co-workers not to coax you into drinking when you attend social events. Stick to soft drinks.
  • Do not be tempted to make the switch to “non-alcoholic” or “alcohol-free” beers, wines, or other drinks. According to this research, such drinks might contain a higher percentage of alcohol than what is indicated on the labels.
  • Find out about alcohol-free mocktails that will help you stay away from alcohol.
  • Do not stock alcoholic drinks at home. This ensures there is nothing harmful to drink even if you feel the urge.
  • Seek professional help if you have alcohol dependence. An alcoholic mother is usually unable to take care of her own health and nutritional needs during pregnancy, which increases the risk of her baby being born with developmental abnormalities.

Despite conflicting reports circulating in the media, researchers have more or less agreed that drinking alcohol during pregnancy always increases the risk of your baby having FASD. While it is true that some mothers drink during pregnancy and still have healthy babies, it is always wise not to stretch your luck (or the genes).

Always remember, any amount of alcohol taken at any time during the pregnancy exposes your unborn baby to toxins that can cause irreversible physical and mental defects. You CANNOT thrust this fate upon your baby!