How much alcohol is too much 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 higher levels of blood alcohol than you have.
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 for having a baby with a low birth weight and raise your child's risk for having 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, and damage to the central nervous system.
Babies with FAS may also have abnormally small heads and brains, as well as heart, spine, and other anatomical defects. The central nervous system damage may include mental retardation, delays in physical development, vision and hearing problems, and a variety of behavioral problems.
Frequent drinking (seven or more alcoholic drinks per week, including liquor, wine, and/or beer) or binge drinking (four 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 also develop this syndrome. Babies exposed to alcohol before birth – even if they don't have the full spectrum of FAS – may still be born with some of these birth defects or later exhibit a number of mental, physical, or behavioral problems.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fetal exposure to alcohol is one of the main preventable causes of birth defects and developmental problems in this country. More than 10 percent of women in the United States drink during pregnancy, and about 1 in 50 pregnant women binge drink. The babies of all these women are at risk for alcohol-related effects.
How to get help
Whether you have a severe drinking problem or a more moderate one, if you find yourself unable to completely give up alcohol, it's vital to get help as soon as possible. If you need help, here are some options:
- Talk to your healthcare provider about counseling and treatment.
- Call your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), listed in the white pages of the phone book and on theorganization's website.
- Call a local crisis intervention helpline (listed in the yellow pages under "crisis intervention").
- Find a substance abuse treatment facility near you on 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 the supposedly alcohol-free versions of beer and wine. In fact, all "nonalcoholic" beers and many “nonalcoholic” wines do contain some alcohol, typically less than half a percent. Drinks labeled "nonalcoholic" can contain trace amounts of alcohol, while those labeled "alcohol-free" can't. However, researchers have found that some drinks contain greater amounts of alcohol than claimed on their labels – even some labeled “alcohol-free.”
While few would say that the trace amount of alcohol in an occasional glass of “nonalcoholic” beer is going to harm your baby, it's something to be aware of – especially if you drink these beverages often or in large amounts. So before you drink up, read labels carefully and remember that "nonalcoholic" and "alcohol-free" aren't interchangeable terms.
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 that should include swearing off alcohol for the rest of your pregnancy.
Tomorrow: Alternatives to alcohol and other cool things to drink.