Drinking While Pregnant: What Are The Effects of Alcohol?

We’ve all heard it from our doctors: if you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t be drinking. But according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), 1 in 10 women in the United States drink alcohol during pregnancy – and 3% even reported binge drinking.

Pregnancy is a stressful time, so if you’re used to relaxing with a cold one or a glass of wine, maybe old habits die hard. But how does drinking alcohol during pregnancy affect your baby? Let’s run through the myths and facts about drinking for two.

What’s wrong with drinking during pregnant?

alcohol cocktail bar

Your developing baby gets all the nutrients it needs via the placenta. But when alcohol enters a pregnant mother’s bloodstream, the fetus absorbs that through the placenta, too. The fetus has to metabolize the alcohol just as an adult would, but since their liver isn’t fully developed yet, it takes much more time and resources to break it down. The alcohol stays in the body until it’s fully metabolized, which can have serious consequences for the developing baby.

What are the effects of alcohol during pregnancy?

Alcohol exposure in utero can cause babies to be born with a cluster of disabilities known as a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The most serious type is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). This can bring about major consequences in the following areas of the child’s development:

  • Growth: Significantly below-average height and/or weight

  • Central nervous system: Intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders, and conduct/behavioural problems

  • Craniofacial features: Small head circumference, small eye openings, short nose, etc.

There’s no cure for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but it can be prevented by not drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

Drinking while pregnant: Is there a safe level?

drinking wine alcohol

You might hear something like this from other moms you know: “Hey, I had a drink now and then while I was pregnant, and my kids turned out just fine!” Well, good for them. But science says there’s no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

It’s true that full-blown FAS tends to arise from drinking throughout the pregnancy, but newer research suggests there can be effects on growth and development even from much smaller amounts of alcohol. We don’t know what the cut-off point for harm might be, or even if there is one. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics makes it abundantly clear that during pregnancy:

  • no amount of alcohol intake should be considered safe;

  • there is no safe trimester to drink alcohol;

  • all forms of alcohol, such as beer, wine, and liquor, pose similar risk; and

  • binge drinking poses dose-related risk to the developing fetus. 1

What about alcohol in cooking? Or non-alcoholic beers?

kitchen pot stove food

Cooking

Lots of delicious recipes have a little alcohol in them for flavor – it’d be a shame to miss out on your favorite dishes! You may have heard that alcohol “burns off” in the cooking process, and to a certain extent that’s true – but it depends on the cooking method, and it can take longer than you expect for it to boil away.

However, the longer you let a dish cook, the lesser the amount of alcohol left will be. If you let something like a pot of stew or pasta sauce with a small amount of wine in the broth simmer for 90 minutes, the amount of alcohol leftover is so negligible it shouldn’t pose you or baby any risk.

Non-alcoholic beer

When it comes to drinks, “non-alcoholic” is a very slight exaggeration: non-alcoholic beers and most non-alcoholic wines do contain trace amounts of alcohol, even though it’s usually less than half of one percent. Obviously such tiny amounts are unlikely to do you and your baby much harm, but since that’s still not “zero” percent, it’s not exactly “zero” risk either – so practice moderation. 

Effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy

Pregnancy Week 0 to 4

If you’re hoping to get pregnant, it’s a good idea to cut out alcohol as soon as you decide you’d like to conceive. But in the two weeks from implantation to the day of the first missed period, many women have no idea that they’re pregnant. It’s not uncommon for women to drink some alcohol during this time.

As we noted, no amount of alcohol is considered safe – but even if you drank during that time because you didn’t realize you were pregnant, try not to panic! While drinking at any point isn’t ideal, you can still give your kid the best chance at a healthy start to life by swearing off alcohol as soon as you learn you’re expecting.

Weeks 4 to 15

As this is the period when your baby’s body takes shape, the nervous system develops, and vital organs like the heart come online. Drinking alcohol at this time may run the risk of serious harm to your child’s physical features, organ function and brain development .

Beyond Week 15: Second and Third Trimesters

It’s true that the vital organs have mostly developed by the end of the first trimester, but your baby is still growing day by day. Even in later pregnancy, any alcohol you drink runs the risk of damaging your child’s health and development in the long run.

Avoid drinking alcohol while pregnant

mother baby hand

Let’s not mince words here: pregnancy can be hard. It can be stressful. It can leave you feeling horrible. But every day, your kid is doing their best to grow and develop, looking forward to the day they can finally meet you in person. For your baby’s sake, try to ride it out without alcohol while you’re pregnant.If you can’t stop drinking alcohol, talk to a doctor. They can help you. You’re not alone, and you can get better.