Alcohol in Pregnancy
The Department of Health recommends that all pregnant women avoid alcohol completely. In the United Kingdom and the United States, the advice is the same.
In the many studies which have been conducted on the effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, it’s clear that drinking large amounts of alcohol will harm the developing baby, but the evidence on low alcohol consumption (1-2 units per week) is less clear. Some women err on the side of caution and don’t drink alcohol at all, others opt to limit their intake to 1-2 units per week. However, it’s important to be aware that a ‘unit’ is less than you might think. A small glass of wine (125mls) is 1.5 units – and many wines are now stronger than the usual 12%. A pint of beer is 2.3 units, but again, many beers now contain more than the historic 4% alcohol – some as much as 6%. It’s also important to know that many wine glasses are larger now and will hold a lot more than 1 unit.
How does alcohol affect my baby?
Alcohol is a toxin that passes through the placenta (your baby’s lifeline to oxygen, nutrients and water) to the fetus during pregnancy. Because the fetus is so small, alcohol is broken down slowly in the fetus’ body and the level remains higher for a longer period of time. This is why alcohol can lead to developmental damage in your baby. Binge drinking (drinking five or more units in one go) is especially harmful, because the level of alcohol is raised very quickly in your blood and also in your baby’s blood.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) is the label given to the collection of physical and mental defects in the babies of heavy drinkers or alcohol abusers – that is, women who consume more than 6 units per day. At the extreme end of this spectrum is fetal alcohol syndrome, where babies will have a range of disorders from facial malformations to learning difficulties and other problems. Women who drink between two and six units of alcohol a day can be affected with a range of symptoms called fetal alcohol effects (FAE). Children with FAE also have mental and physical problems, although to a lesser extent than those with FAS. Children with FAE may also exhibit unwanted behaviour such as hyperactivity and aggression; they may be destructive, find it difficult to concentrate, be nervous and have problems academically and with memory.
Other lifestyle factors during pregnancy such as smoking, a poor diet, heavy consumption of caffeine-containing drinks and using illegal drugs increases the risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or fetal alcohol syndrome.
The signs of FASD/FAS
A child with FASD/FAS doesn’t grow out of these characteristics; he/she often has birth defects such as delayed development and, as he/she grows older, behavioural problems may occur.
Signs of FASD/FAS include:
- a shorter and lighter baby
- a low nasal bridge
- a short, upturned nose
- small eyes
- a large space between the eyes
- a thin upper lip
- minor ear abnormalities
- heart problems
- a small, abnormally formed brain
- learning difficulties
- poor or delayed development
- below-average intelligence
- poor coordination
- poor concentration.
The effects of FASD/FAS cannot be reversed so, if you drink heavily, avoid becoming pregnant until you can abstain from alcohol throughout your pregnancy.
What other problems can drinking during pregnancy cause?
Research shows that drinking alcohol in pregnancy is linked with a number of pregnancy complications including low birthweight and stillbirth. Women who drink heavily are also at a greater risk of miscarriage.
What if I drank before I knew I was pregnant?
Many babies have been conceived after a night out, but as soon as you know you’re pregnant, cut out alcohol. Your baby’s brain and other organs develop rapidly after fertilisation and, after the third week of pregnancy, the fetus is vulnerable to damage by alcohol. And if you’re trying to conceive, it’s best to cut out/limit your alcohol intake. The same goes for your partner!
What about breast-feeding?
Small amounts of alcohol are passed into the breastmilk to the baby, so the advice is to avoid alcohol while you are still breast-feeding. The more you drink, the more your baby will drink. Research has shown that it can make babies feel irritable and uncomfortable. It can also lead to the letdown reflex (which allows milk to be released to your baby from the breasts) becoming unreliable, and this can affect the amount of milk your baby receives.
What about fathers and alcohol?
Research shows that heavy drinking can lead to low sperm counts in men, but more research is needed to fully understand how this comes about. Obviously, though, if you’re trying to cut down on alcohol intake, your partner will give you extra support by cutting down, too.
What exactly is a unit of alcohol?
Alcohol is measured in terms of units. A unit of alcohol is equivalent to:
- one glass of red or white wine (125mls)
- one pub measure (25ml) of spirits, eg vodka, gin or whiskey
- half pint of beer
- one glass of sherry or a measure of vermouth.
A unit of alcohol is equivalent to 10g of alcohol
Some suggestions for cutting down/cutting out.
- If you rely on alcohol to help you to relax, try other things, such as warm, scented baths, massage, yoga, or curl up with a good book.
- Quench your thirst with non-alcoholic drinks, including alcohol-free wines and beers.
- Whip up a delicious non-alcoholic punch by mixing together cranberry juice, apple juice and a twist of lime.
- Try refreshing tomato juice seasoned with plenty of Worcester sauce.
- If you must drink, opt for drinks with the lowest percentages of alcohol (it’s marked on the label), dilute white wine with fizzy water or fruit juice.
- Ask supportive friends to help you to make the right choices – and ask your partner to help by cutting down/out too.
Where can I get help to stop drinking?
If drinking is a normal part of your life, giving up or cutting down can be difficult and many people find it hard to ask for help. But for the sake of your health and that of your baby, you must try.
Speak with your doctor or midwife and be truthful about how much you’re drinking. Get help before it harms your baby.