Alcohol And Pregnancy: Is It A Good Idea?

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Most care providers will concur, drinking while pregnant is not a good idea. Since the 1960s, numerous studies support the conclusion that consumption of alcohol during pregnancy contributes to higher rates of infant deaths, low birth weight, spontaneous abortion, physical deformities, and poor cognitive functioning.

Despite an increase in awareness of the risks associated with alcohol use during pregnancy, alcohol consumption by pregnant women saw a steady increase during the 1990s from 9 percent in 1990 to nearly 20 percent by 2000. Since then, while alcohol use among women continues to rise, consumption by pregnant women has decreased some. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that around one in eight pregnant women surveyed consumed at least one alcoholic beverage during the 30-day survey period.

Risk Factors For Pregnant Women And Alcohol

A 2003 study revealed that women who consume alcohol while pregnant tended to be younger, single, less educated, and unemployed. Another study taking place at a public clinic revealed that of the more than 500 pregnant women who sought care, 29 percent reporting physical abuse during their pregnancy.

External risk factors that impact alcohol use by pregnant women include:

  • Women living under poverty level
  • Homelessness
  • A partner’s substance abuse
  • Mental disorder (including depression)
  • History of sexual or physical abuse
  • History of illicit drug use

The majority of women (more than 70 percent) who abuse alcohol during pregnancy reported having been sexually abused during childhood. For many, pregnancy and subsequent exams, people touching a pregnant belly without asking, and even the birth process can bring up feelings relating to the sexual abuse that have been long buried.

This process can be traumatic or part of the healing, depending on the kind of support a woman receives during her pregnancy. Certainly, with such a high occurrence of sexual abuse among women who consume alcohol during pregnancy, this is one underlying issue that should be addressed as part of a comprehensive treatment and support plan.

Did I Drink Too Much While Pregnant?

A common concern for new mothers is whether or not they drank too much before realizing they were pregnant. When a woman consumes alcohol in the very early stages of pregnancy, before the date range when pregnancy tests are normally able to detect the pregnancy hormone, human Chorionic Gonadotropin (hCG) in urine, the placenta has not yet formed, so it is generally accepted that there is little to no transfer of alcohol from mother to developing embryo. However, past the date of the first missed menstrual cycle (just two weeks into the embryo’s development), consumption of alcohol can impede a baby’s organ development and impair the central nervous system.

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How Much Alcohol Is Safe During Pregnancy?

Recent studies in Denmark lend some credibility to the notion that babies born to mothers who consumed alcohol in moderation during their pregnancies suffered no long term ill health effects. Criticism of the study reveals there was a limited sampling of pregnant women and insufficient long-range data on later brain development or predisposition to substance abuse for these children once they reach adolescence.

Most doctors and midwives are left with little information about how much alcohol is safe, which transfers to a recommendation that women not drink while pregnant or breastfeeding.

What We Know About Alcohol And Pregnancy

What we do know about consuming alcohol while pregnant is that it is most unsafe during the early stages of fetal development, between zero and three months. A developing fetus lacks a fully functioning liver, so toxicity from alcohol increases exponentially, leading to a whole host of complications including fetal alcohol syndrome as well as other complications like cerebral palsy, to miscarriage or stillbirth.

Signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Behavioral issues
  • Poor attention span
  • Heart anomalies
  • Low birth weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Low muscle tone
  • Learning disabilities

Impact Of Alcohol During The Embryonic Stage Of Development

Alcohol is a substance known to cause harm. To what degree depends on a myriad of factors including metabolism of mother and baby, how much alcohol was consumed and in what duration, and at what stage of development the consumption took place.

During the embryonic stage of development (occurring in the first eight weeks of pregnancy), cells are rapidly dividing in a predetermined course toward creating body parts and functioning organ systems. During this stage, alcohol toxicity can alter normal development leading to physical deformities, along with damage to the neural crest which may contribute to spontaneous abortion as heart or lungs fail to form.

Impact Of Alcohol During The Fetal Stage Of Development

During the second stage of pregnancy, known as the fetal stage, a thin layer of tissue containing cartilage that will later become bone is surrounding a developing central nervous system. This system is still early in its development, and is at a greater risk than organ systems at this stage for damage from alcohol consumption.

There is no truly safe point in the development of the fetus or embryo when alcohol cannot cause damage, and with that, no pinpointed safe range for consuming alcohol without the potential for harmful consequences for the developing fetus.

Pregnancy And Managing Alcohol Withdrawal

When a pregnant woman suffering with an addiction to alcohol chooses to get help for the addiction, the withdrawal process must be carefully monitored for the safety of mother and baby. A hospital detox will be likely be medically managed in conjunction with hydration therapy and prenatal vitamins. Benzodiazepine drugs used commonly during alcohol withdrawal may still be used even during pregnancy, depending on risk factors.

Get The Support You Need

If you are pregnant and suffering from a dependency on alcohol, you deserve a level of support and care that takes into consideration your pregnancy and the postpartum period. can help connect you with information about alcohol addiction and treatment and support options available to you in your area. Contact and speak with someone today to begin a better life for you and your baby.

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