Advice on the potential risks associated with drinking alcohol in pregnancy, including information on the effect of alcohol on fetal development.
There is general agreement that women should not drink alcohol excessively during pregnancy and debate continues over whether there is a safe limit and, if so, what this is. In addition, people have many different views about how much alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy. Common questions include: should women give up drinking alcohol altogether or is cutting down enough?
Will 'binge' drinking, for example drinking a lot of alcohol at a party early in pregnancy, harm the baby?
All these drinks have one unit of alcohol
- 1 single measure of spirits
- 1 small glass of sherry
- 1 small glass of wine
- 1/4 pint of strong beer, lager or cider
- 1/2 a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider
Pregnant women who continue to rely on alcohol and drink excessively risk harming themselves and their baby in several different ways. It is not clear from the research how much a woman can drink before this harm takes place. It is not only the intake of alcohol that matters, it is the effect of this on the woman's overall state of health both physical and mental and how she manages life in general during her pregnancy.
Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a term that describes the range of problems that affect babies born to women who have drunk large volumes of alcohol in pregnancy. The risk of having a baby with FAS is quite low and is associated with other factors including:
- being over 30 years of age and drinking heavily;
- having previous obstetric problems and a history of miscarriage;
- heavy drinking by the father, as this can increase the baby's risk of having heart defects, weighing less than average at birth, and suffering from problems with its immune system.
Babies born with FAS are likely to have physical abnormalities, such as small eyes, a cleft palate or a pug nose; they may also have severe learning difficulties or problems with their sight or hearing. As they are likely to be smaller than average at birth, they may have problems with their growth and development and are at increased risk of long-term health problems.
Heavy drinking in the first three months of pregnancy is more likely to damage the baby's developing organs; for example the heart or kidneys. Once the baby's vital organs have formed, consistent excessive alcohol is more likely to stop the baby growing and developing properly. This damage cannot be undone, but where women are able to cut down, and ideally stop drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, further damage can be avoided.
For many women alcohol is part of their life and social enjoyment. Women who regularly drink alcohol may find it difficult to cut down the amount they drink, particularly early in pregnancy. Some women may not be aware that they are pregnant and therefore will not have changed their drinking habits until several weeks into the pregnancy.
However, some women might find it hard to cut down and should seek help from their midwife or GP. If you are unsure about the amount of alcohol you drink, you could try keeping a diary. Think back over the last week and try to remember exactly when and where you drank, who you were with and how much you had. When you have completed your diary, you may find there is a pattern to your drinking or something that sets you off. Once you've worked that out, you might be able to break the pattern or avoid the trigger.
If you are having problems either acknowledging that you rely on alcohol or are drinking to excess, you would probably find it beneficial to get in touch with one of the specialist groups that exist. The people you speak to will understand and they can give you non-judgmental practical help and advice.