Do you like unwind with a drink before bed? Maybe you hit Happy Hour with your coworkers when the day is done. Or you enjoy a glass of wine with your meal. You’re in good company – more than 85% of Americans report drinking alcohol at some time in their lives, and more than half report having had a drink within the past month. But what if you’re expecting? What are the risks of drinking while pregnant?
Alcohol And Your Baby
When you have a drink, it passes through your stomach and into your small intestine. There, the alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream and transported around your body.
When you’re pregnant, your bloodstream is linked to your baby’s. That’s how the baby gets its oxygen and nutrients. However, it’s not a direct connection – that’s how you and your baby can have different blood types. Instead, blood flow is regulated by the placenta. Large molecules and cells, such as many bacteria, can’t pass through the placenta but smaller ones can. Alcohol molecules fall into the latter category – they can and do pass from the mother’s bloodstream to the baby’s.
How does alcohol affect the baby? To start, a developing fetus doesn’t have the capacity to effectively filter alcohol out of the blood. That means every drink a pregnant woman has affects the baby more and for a longer period of time than it does the mother. Alcohol is a “teratogen” – a substance that affects the development of the baby. It has the greatest impact on the brain and central nervous system. Alcohol affects adult brains, too, but our brains aren’t as vulnerable as the newly developing brain of a fetus. In addition, alcohol can impair the baby’s ability to absorb oxygen and nutrients and can cause abnormal development of many different organs and system. Fetal alcohol exposure can even be fatal.
In short, drinking while pregnant affects the baby. It can even cause the child to develop Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
What Is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) refers to a range of health issues that can affect babies who were exposed to alcohol in the womb. FASD can cause a variety of neurological issues, including attention deficits, coordination problems, learning disabilities, developmental delays, and mental retardation. It can also cause birth defects of the heart, brain, and other organs. In some cases, it causes the child to develop an abnormally small head or abnormal facial features. Children with FASD may also be shorter and weigh less than average for their age.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for FASD. Depending on the specific health problems and symptoms involved, the child may need medications or medical procedures to address some of the effects of the FASD. Children with FASD may also benefit from speech, behavioral, physical, and occupational therapy to help them learn to work around any disabilities.
Drinking While Pregnant: How Much Is Too Much?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is no safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy. While that advice is clear-cut, there is a lot of pushback. Many women have had a glass of wine while pregnant and their children didn’t suffer any ill effects, which leaves people asking how much is really too much.
The answer is simply that we don’t know. Some women drink heavily and have healthy children. Other women drink only a little bit and have children with FASD. Experts don’t know why some children are more susceptible than others to developing FASD, but the links between drinking and serious birth defects are clear.
Some sources claim that drinking is only dangerous in the first trimester, but that’s untrue. Physical deformities and birth defects are more closely linked with drinking in the first trimester, while decreased fetal size is more closely linked with drinking in the third trimester. The baby’s brain is developing throughout pregnancy, so it can be affected by alcohol exposure at any time. Binge drinking and chronic drinking are the most dangerous, but even small amounts of alcohol can cause FASD.
What About A Single Drink?
Pregnancy is hard – your body is changing, your hormones are going crazy, and you’re getting ready to be a parent. That makes it awfully tempting to chill out and relax with a glass of wine. It’s fairly common – about 10% of women report having consumed alcohol at some point during their pregnancy.
This is a really difficult issue. It doesn’t seem like a single glass of wine could make a difference, but there is evidence that it can. Essentially, it comes down to weighing the risk of drinking while pregnant against the reward. Having a drink is nice, but not having to worry about the potential health risks to your little one is nicer.
Note that you should also avoid drinking if you’re trying to become pregnant. You won’t know that you’re pregnant right away, and binge drinking early on in your pregnancy is very dangerous for the fetus.
How To Avoid Drinking While Pregnant
If you only enjoyed the occasional alcoholic beverage before your pregnancy, it probably won’t be too tough to give it up. If you need to relax, consider taking a bath or a nap instead. If you’re in a social situation where everyone else is drinking, you may want to order a mocktail so you don’t feel left out.
If you were prone to binge drinking or frequent drinking before pregnancy, it may be more difficult to avoid the temptation. Talk to your partner about avoiding alcohol – it’s easier if you have someone there to watch your back and provide moral support when you’re feeling tempted. If you’re having a really hard time avoiding drinking while pregnant, consider talking to your doctor about counseling and support resources. In addition, the Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration maintains a list of support resources so you can find one near you.