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How much alcohol is too much during pregnancy?
Alcohol and pregnancy don't mix. No one knows exactly what potential harmful effects even the smallest amount of alcohol can have on a developing baby.
Experts at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as other public health officials in the United States recommend that pregnant women (and women who are trying to conceive) play it safe by not drinking alcohol in any amount.
In recent years, some studies have made headlines with findings that low to moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy may not significantly harm children. For example, in 2012 Danish researchers released highly publicized studies that found no major problems among children younger than 5 whose mothers had anywhere from one to eight alcoholic drinks a week.
Despite these results, the studies' authors still advised that pregnant women should completely abstain from alcohol. Why? Because there is no known "safe" amount of alcohol during pregnancy.
What effects could alcohol have on my baby?
When you drink, the alcohol quickly travels through your bloodstream, crosses the placenta, and reaches your baby. Your baby breaks down alcohol more slowly than you do, so she may end up with a higher level of blood alcohol.
Drinking endangers your growing baby in a number of ways: It increases the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. As little as one drink a day can raise the odds of miscarrying or having a baby with a low birth weight, and raise your child's risk of problems with learning, speech, attention span, language, and hyperactivity.
Some research has shown that expectant moms who have as little as one drink a week are more likely than nondrinkers to have children who later exhibit aggressive and delinquent behavior. One study found that girls whose mothers drank during pregnancy are more likely to have mental health problems.
"Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders" (FASD) is the term experts use to describe the range of problems related to alcohol exposure before birth. The most severe result of alcohol use is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a lifelong condition characterized by poor growth (in the womb, after birth, or both), abnormal facial features, heart defects, and damage to the central nervous system.
Babies with FAS may also have abnormally small heads and brains as well as anatomical defects, especially of the heart and spine. Damage to the central nervous system may include intellectual disability, delays in physical development, vision and hearing problems, and a variety of behavioral problems.
Heavy drinking (having eight or more alcoholic drinks a week, or three or more drinks on any one occasion) greatly increases the risk that your baby will suffer from FAS. Even babies whose mothers drink less can develop a FASD or later have a number of mental, physical, or behavioral problems.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), fetal exposure to alcohol is one of the main preventable causes of birth defects and developmental problems in this country. According to a recent CDC report, 10 percent of pregnant women in the United States reported drinking alcohol in the last 30 days. Of these women, one-third reported binge drinking.
How to get help
If you're unable to give up alcohol completely during pregnancy, it's vital to get help as soon as possible. Here are some options:
- Talk to your healthcare provider about counseling and treatment.
- Contact your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
- Call a local crisis intervention helpline.
- Find a substance abuse treatment facility near you. Check the website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
What about nonalcoholic beer and wine?
The term "nonalcoholic" is a bit misleading when it comes to beer and wine. Drinks labeled "nonalcoholic" can contain trace amounts of alcohol (while those labeled "alcohol-free" shouldn't contain any). All nonalcoholic beers and many nonalcoholic wines actually do contain some alcohol, though typically less than half a percent. (For comparison, a regular beer typically contains about 5 percent alcohol.)
However, researchers have found that some drinks contain greater amounts of alcohol than claimed on their labels – even some labeled "alcohol-free."
Although few people would claim that the trace amount of alcohol in an occasional glass of nonalcoholic or alcohol-free beer is harmful to your baby, the possibility is something to be aware of – especially if you drink these beverages often or in large amounts. To eliminate all risk of alcohol exposure, experts recommend that expectant moms avoid these drinks altogether.
What if I had a few drinks before I knew I was pregnant?
If you had a drink or two before your period was due, don't panic. It's not likely that it harmed your baby. The most important thing to focus on is staying as healthy as you can from now on – and avoiding alcohol for the rest of your pregnancy is one of the best things you can do for your baby.