Until fairly recently, moderate amounts of alcohol consumed during pregnancy was deemed to be relatively safe. However, guidance produced in March 2008, by the health watchdog NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), recommends that it is best for pregnant women to stop drinking alcohol altogether, especially during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
The effects of drinking alcohol are most harmful for your baby when you drink just before and during the first trimester of pregnancy. Therefore, you should also avoid drinking alcohol if you are trying for a baby or planning to do so, as many women do not realise they are pregnant until some weeks into their pregnancy. When a woman cuts down or stops drinking at any point during pregnancy, it can make a difference to the baby.
If you do choose to drink, you should not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week to minimise the risk to your unborn baby. You should not get drunk and avoid binge drinking. For women, binge drinking means drinking more than five to six units of alcohol a day.
One unit of alcohol is about half a pint of bitter or ordinary lager, a glass of wine or a single shot of a spirit (gin, vodka, rum) (25ml). Units in other alcoholic drinks vary, depending on the strength of the alcohol in them and the size of the glass or bottle. For example, wine is about 12% strength; whisky is about 40% strength. The higher the percentage, the more alcohol a drink has in it. A glass of whisky, therefore, is stronger than a glass of wine. Be wary that drinks poured at home tend to be in larger measures than those provided in pubs and restaurants.
If you drink alcohol when you are pregnant, it passes from your bloodstream through the placenta into your baby’s blood. Your baby cannot process the alcohol as fast as you can, so is exposed to more alcohol for longer than you are. Heavy drinking (over 6 units per day) can cause miscarriage or stillbirth.
Excessive exposure to alcohol can cause damage to your unborn baby at all stages of pregnancy. The alcohol can affect the baby’s growth and development, in particular the way the baby’s brain develops. In the second half of pregnancy, the baby’s growth is affected by the amount of alcohol a woman drinks. The more you drink, the less the baby grows.
- Low birth weight.
- The baby being born too early.
- Heart defects in the baby.
- Learning and behavioural disorders.
- Physical disability.
- Psychological problems.
- Low academic achievement.
- Psychiatric problems.
If alcohol severely damages your unborn baby’s brain, it may cause such problems as:
- Facial deformities.
- Problems with physical and emotional development.
- Poor memory or a short attention span.
- Mental illnesses, such as alcohol or drug addiction.
Problems like these are called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Serious damage is known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). They are avoidable if you do not drink alcohol while you are pregnant, or limit your intake as recommended.
Based on the best evidence to date, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends that the only way to be absolutely certain that your baby is not harmed by alcohol is not to drink at all during pregnancy or while you are trying for a baby.
For further information about accessing help to cut down drinking, speak to your GP, midwife or health visitor. They may be able to provide advice and also direct you to other services that provide counselling and support.