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Alcohol and pregnancy

Definition

Pregnant women are strongly urged not to drink alcohol during pregnancy.

Drinking alcohol while you are pregnant has been shown to have damaging effects on the developing baby and may even lead to permanent disability and medical problems in the child after birth.

Information

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, the alcohol travels through her blood and into the placenta. The placenta is the organ that develops during pregnancy to provide nutrients to the developing baby. That means when a pregnant mom has a glass of wine, her baby has a glass of wine, too. Drinking alcohol can harm the baby's development. Alcohol breaks down much more slowly in the baby's body than in an adult. That means the baby's blood alcohol level stays elevated longer than the mother's. This is very dangerous, and can sometimes lead to lifelong damage.

Dangers of Alcohol During Pregnancy

Drinking a lot of alcohol during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome in the baby. Fetal alcohol syndrome refers to a group of irreversible physical, mental, and neurobehavioral birth defects including mental retardation, growth deficiencies, attention disorders, heart and nervous system damage, and other lifelong medical problems.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy may also result in:

  • Abnormal heart structure
  • Abnormal brain structure
  • Behavior problems

Complications seen in the infant may include:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Infant death
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental retardation
  • Miscarriage or stillbirth
  • Poor growth before birth
  • Premature delivery
  • Problems in the structure of the head, eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Slow growth and poor coordination after birth

How Much Alcohol is Dangerous?

There is no known "safe" amount of alcohol use during pregnancy. Alcohol use appears to be the most harmful during the first 3 months of pregnancy; however, drinking alcohol anytime during pregnancy can be harmful.

Alcohol includes beer, wine, wine coolers, and liquor.

One drink is defined as:

  • 12 oz of beer
  • 5 oz of wine
  • 1.5 oz of liquor

How much you drink is just as important as how often you drink.

  • Even if you don't drink often, drinking a large amount at one time is especially harmful to the baby.
  • Binge drinking (5 or more drinks on one occasion) greatly increases a baby's risk of alcohol-related damage.
  • Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol when pregnant may lead to miscarriage.
  • Heavy drinkers (those who drink more than 2 alcoholic beverages a day) are at greater risk of giving birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • The more you drink, the more you raise your baby's risk for harm.

Do Not Drink During Pregnancy

Women who are pregnant or who are trying to get pregnant should avoid drinking any amount of alcohol. The only way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is to not drink alcohol during pregnancy.

If you did not know you were pregnant and drank alcohol, stop drinking as soon as you find out. While it is unlikely that the occasional drink you took before finding out you were pregnant will harm your baby, the sooner you stop drinking alcohol, the healthier your baby will be.

If you enjoy alcoholic beverages try replacing them with their nonalcoholic counterparts: for example, you might opt for a nonalcoholic pina colada instead of the real thing.

Pregnant women with alcoholism should join an alcohol abuse rehabilitation program and be checked closely by a health care provider throughout pregnancy.

The following organizations may offer assistance:

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency -- www.ncadd.org

Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator -- 1-800-662-4357

See also: Alcoholism - support group

References

Alcohol and Women. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Available at: www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp068.cfm Accessed March 16, 2010.

American Pregnancy Association web site. Alcohol and Pregnancy: What You Should Know. www.americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/alcohol.html Accessed March 16, 2010.

Stoll BJ. Metabolic disturbances. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 106.

Bertrand J, Floyd LL, Weber MK. Guidelines for identifying and referring persons with fetal alcohol syndrome. MMWR Recomm Rep. 2005 Oct 28;54(RR-11):1-14.

March of Dimes web site. Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy. Available at: www.marchofdimes.com/professionals/14332_1170.asp Accessed March 16, 2010.

Cunnigham FG, Leveno KL, Bloom SL, et al. Teratology and medications that affect the fetus. In: Cunnigham FG, Leveno KL, Bloom SL, et al, eds. Williams Obstetrics. 22nd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2005:chap 14.


Review Date: 3/21/2010
Reviewed By: Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Redmond, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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