Alcohol and Pregnancy Studies
Few scientific studies have proven that occasional alcohol use during pregnancy directly harms a fetus in the same way that alcohol abuse or addiction does. However, just because a strong correlation has not been scientifically established does not mean drinking alcohol while pregnant is safe or advisable.
Heavy drinking is scientifically proven to harm a fetus, as evidenced by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). For researchers, the problem with showing that small amounts of alcohol are safe during pregnancy is that it is unethical to run a study where expectant mothers are given alcoholic drinks. Researchers must rely on weaker evidence like survey studies to make conclusions. A major problem with this kind of study is how subjective the information is. Studies like this cannot be blinded and are subject to bias.
A study published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology sums up a key point for expectant mothers, noting that, “FASD, a major cause of intellectual disability, is completely preventable with abstinence from alcohol from conception to birth.” Ultimately, this statement conveys that even if mild or moderate alcohol intake is safe for a fetus, why take the risk? It is understood that there is an amount of alcohol that is too much, but since it is not defined clearly, expectant mothers should avoid alcohol use.
Effects of Using Alcohol while Pregnant
Alcohol and pregnancy is a dangerous combination. It is the most dangerous during the first trimester, or first three months, of pregnancy. Drinking alcohol during this time is associated with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) with adverse effects on brain development.
Other studies have shown a correlation between alcohol use during pregnancy and a baby’s behavioral issues, social interaction, conduct, and affect (mood regulation). This finding has been shown by sibling comparison studies in which a mother reports the alcohol she drank while pregnant with different children and comparing the behavioral problems they showed as adults.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FASDs, refers to a group of disorders that result from a mother drinking alcohol while pregnant.
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS): This is the syndrome that most people are familiar with and can involve a range of problems. Typically, FAS is described by the symptoms listed below and can involve any combination of those symptoms. For example, a baby born with FAS may experience growth problems, facial abnormalities, and poor memory. Or, they may experience intellectual disabilities, problems with their heart and small head size. These symptoms vary in their seriousness and permanence.
- Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND): Usually, ARND includes symptoms of learning problems or an intellectual disability. A child born with ARND may have difficulty in school, poor attention and poor judgment.
- Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD): This term describes physical symptoms and can include problems with a baby’s bones, ears, heart or kidney.
Alcohol Born Babies
Alcohol readily passes through the umbilical cord from mother to baby. Therefore, when an expectant mother drinks alcohol, baby’s long term effects are more serious. The mother is essentially gambling that the alcohol has been metabolized before it reaches the developing baby.
Alcohol Born Babies Side Effects
Once in the baby’s blood, alcohol touches and impacts the developing blood, brain, organs, and other tissue. A baby does not have a fully developed liver, so while the mother can metabolize alcohol, her baby cannot. Common slang for FASD is “alcohol baby”; symptoms may include:
- Attention-deficit disorder (ADD)
- Abnormal facial features
- Difficulty in school
- Intellectual disability
- Learning disabilities
- Low birth weight
- Poor coordination
- Poor memory
- Poor reasoning and judgment skills
- Problems with the heart, kidney or bones
- Below average height
- Small head size
- Speech and language delays
- Vision or hearing problems
For some women who drink, the impact on their unborn babies is much more severe. Serious effects that “alcohol babies” (incorrect and stigmatizing language) may experience include:
- Cerebral palsy
- Premature delivery
- Pregnancy loss or stillbirth
So, is drinking a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy safe for an unborn baby? The problem is that researchers cannot say with certainty how much alcohol is safe and how much is not. If one or two drinks is safe, what about three? Six is definitely unsafe, but what if it’s only one time? Because there is no established threshold for alcohol use during pregnancy, avoiding alcohol use altogether is the safest practice for expectant mothers.
Alcohol and Breastfeeding
The safest option is to not drink alcohol while breastfeeding. Breastmilk alcohol levels reach about the same as blood alcohol levels. According to the National Institute of Health, “Nursing after 1 or 2 drinks (including beer) can decrease the infant’s milk intake by 20 to 23% and cause infant agitation and poor sleep patterns.” In other words, alcohol can agitate a baby and make them nurse less, which impacts their nutrition and sleep patterns.
When a mother consumes an alcoholic beverage, the levels of alcohol in her blood and breastmilk peak between 30 and 60 minutes later, and stay in the system for one to two hours. Therefore, if a new mother has a drink, she should wait at least two to three hours before breastfeeding.
Alcohol can also decrease the level of the hormone prolactin, which will decrease the amount of milk produced. This effect means more frequent feedings for mother and baby.
Key Points: Alcohol, Pregnancy, and Breastfeeding
Several important takeaways about alcohol use during pregnancy and breastfeeding include:
- To keep your baby safe, avoid all alcoholic drinks while pregnant and breastfeeding
- Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) with permanent impacts on a developing baby
- FASDs present with different symptoms. Some impact the baby physically, some mentally, and some both.
- Damage to a developing fetus may be permanent
- Drinking while breastfeeding transfers alcohol through breastmilk
- If you drink alcohol while breastfeeding, wait at least two hours per drink before breastfeeding your baby
If you find yourself unable to quit drinking alcohol while pregnant, it may be time to seek help. If you or someone you know needs treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction, The Recovery Village can help. We have facilities located across the country and offer comprehensive treatment programming tailored to each client’s unique needs. To take the first step toward recovery, call The Recovery Village today.
National Center for Biotechnology Information “Alcohol – Drugs and Lactation Database.” Last revised 2019. Accessed 6 May 2019. MedlinePlus. “Alcohol and Pregnancy: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” 2017. Accessed 6 May 2019. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” 2018. Accessed 6 May 2019. Charness, Michael E., et al. “Drinking During Pregnancy and the Developing Brain: Is Any Amount Safe?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2016. Accessed 6 May 2019. The Mayo Clinic. “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – Symptoms and Causes.” 2018. Accessed 6 May 2019. Haastrup, Maija Bruun, et al. “Alcohol and Breastfeeding.” Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, 2013. Accessed 6 May 2019.
National Center for Biotechnology Information “Alcohol – Drugs and Lactation Database.” Last revised 2019. Accessed 6 May 2019.
MedlinePlus. “Alcohol and Pregnancy: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” 2017. Accessed 6 May 2019.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” 2018. Accessed 6 May 2019.
Charness, Michael E., et al. “Drinking During Pregnancy and the Developing Brain: Is Any Amount Safe?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2016. Accessed 6 May 2019.
The Mayo Clinic. “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – Symptoms and Causes.” 2018. Accessed 6 May 2019.
Haastrup, Maija Bruun, et al. “Alcohol and Breastfeeding.” Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, 2013. Accessed 6 May 2019.