Alcohol use during pregnancy and breastfeeding can be harmful to babies.

When you become pregnant, there are a lot of things you have to give up including deli meat, certain soft cheeses, and alcohol. The concept of not drinking alcohol while pregnant has become an ingrained part of medical understanding in the U.S., but what does the research indicate about the effects of alcohol during pregnancy?

The following offers an overview of everything you should know about alcohol and pregnancy and the effects of alcohol during pregnancy.

What To Know About Alcohol and Pregnancy

While there is a bit of debate about the possible effects of alcohol during pregnancy when you occasionally have a small glass of wine, there is a consensus about the effects of the heavy use of alcohol and pregnancy. There is no debate about the fact that heavy drinking during pregnancy can result in a range of birth defects.

The March of Dimes has a set of recommendations for women regarding alcohol and pregnancy, and they advise women not to drink if they’re pregnant, trying to get pregnant or believe they could be pregnant.

According to the March of Dimes, drinking at any time during your pregnancy can cause health problems for the fetus because alcohol passes through the placenta and umbilical cord, and this includes wine, beer, liquor, and wine coolers. They advise that there’s no time during pregnancy that it’s safe to drink, and some of the reasons they issue this warning include the fact that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can increase the chances of premature birth, brain damage and associated growth and development problems, and a range of birth defects.

Some of the birth defects possible with alcohol and pregnancy include intellectual and development disabilities, and there is a condition called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or FASDs. Children who are on this spectrum may have delays in physical, mental and emotional development, and this usually lasts for the duration of the child’s life. According to the March of Dimes, binge drinking during pregnancy increases the risk of this occurring, and binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks within a two to three-hour time frame.

Related Topic: Fetal alcohol syndrome treatment

Other risks outlined by the March of Dimes with alcohol and pregnancy can include low birth weight, miscarriage, and stillbirth.

The March of Dimes warns that if you feel like you have an alcohol use disorder that you seek professional treatment to help you stop, so you can avoid the effects of alcohol during pregnancy.

The Centers for Disease Control has similar guidelines to the March of Dimes, and they tell women they shouldn’t drink if they’re sexually active and not using contraception. Some of the specific effects of alcohol during pregnancy that are named by the CDC include abnormal facial features, a small head size, shorter-than-average height and low body weight, coordination problems, hyperactivity and attention problems, difficulty in school and learning disabilities, delays in speech and language, intellectual disability and low IQ. They also name other potential effects of alcohol during pregnancy include having sleep and sucking problems as a baby, vision or hearing problems, and problems associated with the heart, kidney or bones.

What About Light Use of Alcohol and Pregnancy?

While heavy drinking or binge drinking is universally agreed upon to be extremely dangerous during pregnancy, light drinking isn’t as agreed upon.While most agencies and medical groups warn women shouldn’t drink at all, there isn’t a lot of research about the light use of alcohol and pregnancy right now.

While there aren’t clear risks that are currently known about the effects of alcohol during pregnancy if you were to let’s say have a glass of champagne at an event, doctors still advise against it because the risks really aren’t known. Doctors feel it’s best to advise women that abstaining altogether leaves that risk of the effects of alcohol during pregnancy entirely out of the equation.

There’s also the problem that comes with the fact that a lot of people wouldn’t define light alcohol use in the same way as a medical professional. For example, for some women light drinking could be two glasses of wine a night, and that could be risky, whereas one glass might not be.

There are just so many unknown variables when it comes to alcohol and pregnancy, and the effects of alcohol during pregnancy can be so harmful that it still stands that women should avoid drinking during this time.

Common Myths About Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

FAS is lifelong and can bring huge difficulties to the individual and his or her family. However, it’s also completely preventable. The only cause of FAS is exposure to alcohol during development. The following are some of the myths that many women who are expecting or may be expecting believe:

Myth: “It’s a holiday. A little celebratory sip can’t hurt.”

Fact: Because the fetus can’t filter out the alcohol as well as the mother’s body can, the alcohol stays in the fetus’ system longer. Even very small amounts of alcohol can be very harmful. A 2012 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that “even low amounts of alcohol consumption during early pregnancy increased the risk of spontaneous abortion substantially.” Another study found that drinking even low or moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy is associated with preterm delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Myth: “Wine’s, okay, right? It’s not like it’s vodka!”

Fact: The fetus can’t tell what kind of alcohol it is. All alcoholic drinks, including wine, beer, and coolers, have alcohol that will pass through the umbilical cord into the developing baby’s system.

Myth: “The baby’s due any day now. It can’t hurt to drink at this point.”

Fact: Actually, your child is still developing and will continue to develop after birth. You should avoid drinking even during breastfeeding, as the alcohol can pass into the milk and affect the baby.

Myth: “I’m not pregnant yet, so this doesn’t apply to me.”

Fact: Many women who are sexually active without effective birth control become pregnant and drink before they realize they’re pregnant. In the U.S., 1 in 9 pregnant women binge drinks some time during the first three months of pregnancy, and as many as 1 in 5 women report drinking in the first trimester. If you might become pregnant in the near future, stop drinking.

Summing Up—Alcohol and Pregnancy

The risks are high with alcohol and pregnancy. If you combine alcohol and pregnancy, the side effects can be lifelong for your child, can range from mild to severe, and can include physical problems as well as intellectual and emotional developmental problems. It’s advised that because of the effects of alcohol during pregnancy that women abstain from drinking even while trying to become pregnant, or being sexually active without the use of adequate contraception. Of course, you should always discuss alcohol and pregnancy with your physician first and foremost, but official recommendations advise women to avoid combing alcohol and pregnancy.

If you feel like it will be difficult for you to stop drinking while pregnant, you should consider a professional alcohol treatment program to ensure the health and well-being of your unborn child.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD, BCPS, CACP
Dr. Sheehy completed his BS in Molecular Biology at the University of Idaho and went on to complete his Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) at the University of Washington in Seattle. Read more

Andersen, A, et al. “Moderate alcohol intake during pregna[…]k of fetal death.”, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 41, Issue 2, April 2012. Accessed August 25, 2021.

CASA. “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – pg. 5.” CASA of Arizona. Accessed August 25, 2021.

CDC. “Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 24, 2021. Accessed August 25, 2021.

CDC. “Basics about FASDs.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 21, 2021. Accessed August 25, 2021.

NCBI. “Alcohol Research & Health.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2011. Accessed August 25, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.