Womens Health

Pregnancy and Alcohol: How Much is Too Much?

Taking care of her developing baby's health is a woman's top concern during pregnancy. Pregnant women know that ensuring that they follow a healthy diet is central to their baby's health. But one issue that continues to be debated is whether or not it is safe for pregnant women to consume alcohol.

While some experts believe that the effects of alcohol during pregnancy can have a serious effect on a developing fetus’ health, others believe that an occasional drink is not enough to negatively impact a baby’s health. So is there really a safe amount of alcohol that a pregnant woman can consume?

Medical Opinions About Alcohol During Pregnancy

There are three broad categories under which experts’ opinions regarding the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can be organized. Some experts believe that abstaining completely from alcohol during pregnancy is best, while others feel that abstaining from alcohol during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and then having an occasional drink does not negatively affect baby health. Still others feel that an occasional drink is not harmful and will not cause any types of birth defects.

The Effects of Drinking During Pregnancy

While experts have varying opinion on this issue, studies have shown that even moderate to light drinking can have a negative effect on the health of a developing fetus, including an increased risk of physical and mental birth defects. In fact, the effects of alcohol results in the birth of over 40,000 babies being born annually with some form of alcohol-related damage. 

Studies have shown that having just one alcoholic a day increases the risk for learning, speech, attention and language problems in a baby, as well as the risk of behavioral problems, such as hyperactivity. A recent study also found that the children of mothers who had consumed one glass of alcohol per week during pregnancy were more likely to have behavioral problems.

Furthermore, some health experts believe that a woman should not only abstain from alcohol during pregnancy, but also while trying to get pregnant or if they think they might be pregnant. This is because a baby’s brain and organs begin to develop approximately during the third week of pregnancy. Because many women do not learn they are pregnant after this time, alcohol during the first three weeks of pregnancy can be a dangerous mix.

In addition, recent studies have found that women who drink even a small amount of alcohol while trying to get pregnant have a reduced chance of conceiving.

Drinking while pregnant can also have a serious impact on a baby’s development. This is because when a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol passes quickly through the placenta to the baby. Alcohol is broken down much more slowly by the developing fetus’ body compared to that of an adult, meaning that the blood alcohol level in the fetus’ blood is much higher and remains so for a greater period of time, a fact which can result in life-long mental and physical damage.

Alcohol-related birth defects that affect cardiovascular health are more likely to occur because of drinking during the first trimester, while drinking during the third trimester leads to growth-related birth defects. However, alcohol consumption during any stage of pregnancy can affect brain development. In addition, alcohol increases the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

One of the most well-known alcohol effects on the health of a developing baby is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This condition, which results in physical and mental birth defects, occurs in approximately 6% of all babies born to women who were alcoholics (drank excessively) or chronic alcohol abusers (repeated binge drinkers). The effects of FAS are life-long, and include the improper development of organs, as well as a low birth-weight size.

The greater the level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, the greater the risk of FAS, as well as the greater the severity of FAS symptoms.

However, even moderate consumption of alcohol (defined as 1-2 drinks daily) is linked to problems such as low birth weight, irritability during infancy, and kidney and urinary defects.

Are Non-Alcoholic Beverages Safe During Pregnancy?

It is important to note that although they are labeled ‘non-alcoholic’, non-alcoholic beverages do contain some alcohol and therefore should not be consumed during pregnancy. Non-alcoholic beverages usually contain just under 0.5% alcohol.

Non-alcoholic beverages should be distinguished from alcohol-free drinks, which do not contain any alcohol.

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