Alcohol and Pregnant Women

The simple fact of becoming pregnant completely changes the risks associated with drinking alcohol. And this doesn’t mean drinking alcohol to excess or being addicted to alcohol. Really it refers to drinking any alcohol while pregnant.  

pregnant woman with glass of wine

If a non-pregnant woman has an occasional drink, there may be no health or mental risk. But alcohol and pregnant women don’t mix. Any amount of alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of “fetal alcohol spectrum disorder” or in the newborn.

What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and What Causes It?

It is well-known that the alcohol one drinks winds up in the blood. A person’s drunkenness is measured by detecting their BAC - blood alcohol content. Every bit of a mother’s blood circulates through the fetus as well, so each drop passes through the baby’s growing body. While a little alcohol may not bother a mother much, it may severely interfere with the baby’s proper development, especially growth and central nervous system development. This type of damage in the newborn is referred to as “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder” (FASD). This term describes a range of abnormalities from mild to severe.

FASD symptoms may show up as physical, mental or developmental abnormalities. A baby may have a few, some or all of these symptoms and they may vary in severity:

  • Abnormal facial features and a small head
  • Shorter-than-average height
  • Low body weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the kidneys or bones or especially the heart
  • Problems sleeping and sucking

Once the child gets older and especially when they start in school, other signs may be apparent:

  • The child may be excessively active and may not be able to control all his or her actions
  • He or she may manifest difficulty paying attention and have a poor memory
  • There may be difficulties learning, especially math
  • Specific learning disabilities may be present, such as dyslexia
  • There may be a low IQ and poor judgment skills
  • The child may have vision or hearing problems
  • More severe cases may have mental disabilities

Ref: Alcohol and Pregnant Women

Studies of pregnant women who drank just one alcoholic drink per week, and their babies, showed that even this small amount of alcohol while pregnant resulted in smaller-sized babies and more behavior problems.

Ref: March of Dimes: Alcohol in Depth

Alcohol during Pregnancy Creates Other Dangers

FASD is not the only problem that can be created if a woman drinks while pregnant. A number of studies have found a greater incidence of premature birth, stillbirth and miscarriage when a woman consumes alcohol while pregnant. In fact, a Danish study in 2008 showed that pregnant women who binged on alcohol three or more times per week early in the pregnancy showed a 56 percent greater risk of stillbirth.

In 2005, the Surgeon General of the United States recommended that pregnant women completely abstain from alcohol consumption. This followed the 1981 recommendation that pregnant women simply limit the amount they drank. As time and experience mounted, it was found that there is no safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed while pregnant.

To be completely safe, a woman who is planning or trying to get pregnant should abstain from alcohol, as many women don’t know exactly when they become pregnant. A baby’s brain and other organs start developing around the third week of pregnancy and are particularly vulnerable to alcohol during pregnancy in these early days.

It would be smart for a woman of child-bearing age who is not using birth control to also avoid drinking. That way, since more than half the pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, the baby will not be harmed in an unexpected pregnancy.

The consequences of ignoring this guidance can be astronomically expensive: In 1982, the Alaska State Legislature estimated the cost of a baby born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a severe form of FASD with both physical and mental handicaps, at $1.4 million dollars for the lifetime of the child.

Ref: SAMHSA: (Cost of Alcohol and Pregnancy)

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