Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy | Effects, Treatment and Help

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  1. What Effects Could Alcohol have On My Baby?
  2. How Can I get Help if I Want to Stop Drinking during Pregnancy?
  3. What If I Have a Few Drinks Not Knowing I'm Pregnant?
  4. What Does The Research Say?
  5. Can I Drink While Pregnant?
  6. Sources

How Much Alcohol is Bad During Pregnancy?

There are differing and inconsistent views about how much alcohol is harmful during pregnancy.

This is because it is difficult to measure what amount is safe during pregnancy. So, there is no concrete way to tell whether a single glass of wine will or will not have detrimental effects on the fetus—or to what extent.

How Much Alcohol is Bad During Pregnancy?

The difficulty in understanding the effects of alcohol on fetal development is primarily due to:

  • Maternal differences (alcohol affects everyone slightly differently).
  • Poly-substance abuse and other exacerbating environmental factors.
  • Differences in fetal development.

  • Pattern of consumption, i.e., type of alcohol, amount consumed over time—binge type versus daily consumption.
  • Genetic susceptibility.


Accordingly, the guidelines around drinking have differed.

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  • Some reports indicate that physicians’ views on drinking alcohol during pregnancy vary; while some physicians limit intake to two drinks per day, others recommend one or less per day.
  • However, the Surgeon General’s advisory on alcohol and pregnancy recommends that women should not consume any alcohol during pregnancy.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) cautions women on the need to be careful about alcohol consumption during pregnancy and advises them not to drink while pregnant. If you are pregnant and unable to control your drinking; help is available. Do the right thing for yourself and your baby, call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? to learn about treatment.

What Effects Could Alcohol have On My Baby?

According to research, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is one of the major risks associated with drinking alcohol while pregnant. The three main characteristic symptoms of FAS are:

Facial abnormalities that include:

  • Short upturned nose.
  • Flattened cheek bones.
  • Smaller eye openings.
  • Small head circumference.

Growth retardation that can cause abnormalities in the following:

  • Heart.
  • Sight.
  • Hearing.
  • Kidney function.

Central nervous system abnormalities differ during each developmental stage of life and include:

  • Autonomic instability, like heart murmurs (that are apparent by one year of age) and involuntary eye movements.
  • Problems regulating state (sleep, arousal etc.)
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Cognitive impairment and memory deficits.
  • Learning disabilities.
  • Seizures.

Combined, many of the above deficits can result in neuro-behavioral difficulties during adolescence and adulthood, manifesting in:

Psychological Impact Icon

  • Poor social skills and trouble relating to others.
  • Difficulty maintaining independence and managing school or work related tasks.
  • Problems with substance abuse.
  • Increased hospitalizations.
  • Problems regulating emotions and impulses.


What Are the Maternal Risks for FAS?

  • Higher age (during pregnancy).
  • Poor nutrition during pregnancy.
  • Low educational level.
  • Social isolation.
  • History of physical and/or sexual abuse.

  • Mental health problems.
  • Other substance-use problems.
  • Having family members with substance abuse or alcoholism during pregnancy.
  • Domestic violence.

How Can I get Help if I Want to Stop Drinking during Pregnancy?

It is also important to talk to your doctor about the problem and request for referral to a specialist for early intervention.

  • Women with more serious patterns of abuse (binge drinking, dependence) require more in-depth counseling and should seek rehabilitation treatment.

    • Rehabilitation centers have professionals who can offer relevant information and treatment that is necessary to stop alcohol consumption without the risk of relapse.
    • Another way to deal with the problem is visiting a substance abuse facility where once can access alcohol treatment program and be able to recover from alcohol consumption.

  • Some advocates support a comprehensive prenatal care plan to address the issues with substance use during pregnancy. Components of such a plan include:

    • Screening pregnant women for alcohol and drug use.
    • Education and/or counseling women on the effects of alcohol use on the fetus.
    • Working with social-service providers to comprehensively address environmental and social factors that exacerbate substance use during pregnancy.

  • Research shows that:

    • A plan that incorporates consistent screening and education is effective in improving outcomes for substance-abusing pregnant women.
    • Abstinence after a period of drinking can considerably improve both the mother's and baby's health compared to drinking throughout pregnancy.

There is a misconception that if you have consumed alcohol during pregnancy, there is no point or benefit to stopping—the damage has, effectively, been done. It is never too late to invest in yourself and your baby. Please call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? to learn about the treatment options that are available for you.

Additionally, there are various possible therapies, interventions, and resources that can help women to stop drinking during pregnancy.

pregnant woman talking to therapist

  • Brief Interventions (BIs): Brief interventions are short counseling sessions that aim to educate one about the negative consequences of a behavior while providing assistance to reduce that behavior.
  • BIs have proven to be highly effective in reducing maladaptive behaviors related to alcohol. Some documented effects include:
    • Reduction in drinking behavior.
    • Increased abstinence rates.
    • Improvement in fetal health and post-natal outcomes.

Pharmacological treatments: While treatments such as disulfiram, acamprosate and naltrexone have demonstrated efficacy in treating alcohol use disorders, there is a lack of data regarding their safety for use during pregnancy.

Some additional resources that can help expectant mothers to stop alcohol drinking include:

  • Seeking support from family members, social support groups, religion and materials such as books that discuss issues pertaining to alcohol use have the potential for fostering social and behavioral changes.
    • Social support plays a crucial role in helping remind victims of alcohol consumption on the need to abstain.
  • Additionally, one should avoid motivators for alcohol consumption such as friends who may encourage drinking and other maladaptive behaviors during pregnancy.

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What If I Have a Few Drinks Not Knowing I'm Pregnant?

woman drinking wine
Most women drink alcohol before realizing they are pregnant and it is advisable to stop drinking once you realize that you are pregnant.

Although most researchers and physicians agree that drinking during pregnancy creates a risk for the fetus, there are disagreements on the level of risk and stages of pregnancy when damages may occur.

Every pregnancy tends to be different, and not all women have an equal disposition to increased risk of FAS- related birth. Moreover, there is some evidence that moderate alcohol intake during pregnancy does not necessarily lead to adverse effects on the fetus. A systematic review on the effects of low alcohol consumption (less than 12 grams per day) concluded that there was no evidence that it was harmful.

So, the conclusion we can reasonably draw from that information is this:

If you did not know you were pregnant and drank for a certain period, it will most likely not have a harmful effect and you should stop as soon as you find out in order to reduce the risk of developing complications related to alcohol.

  • However, if you have developed an alcohol addiction, it is critical to seek help. Please call 1-888-993-3112Who Answers? to find a treatment option that is suitable for you and your baby.

What Does The Research Say?

Educate IconIn 2007, it was estimated that the prevalence of alcohol use amongst pregnant women is 12%.

Between 2012 and 2013, the CDC reported that around 10% of women reported drinking during pregnancy and of this around 3% were binge drinkers.

Demographic and social risk factors vary.

  • Age: Some studies suggest that age influences the tendency to drink during pregnancy, with higher age being associated with an increased likelihood of drinking.
  • Education: Some research shows that women who have achieved a higher level of education and larger incomes are more likely to drink during pregnancy as compared to those with lower education.
  • Financial status: Another finding is that socioeconomic status predicts the likelihood of alcohol consumption—people of a high socioeconomic status are more likely to engage in frequent light social drinking while those of a low socioeconomic status are more likely to engage in binge drinking.
  • Excessive drinking: Binge drinking is significantly associated with marital status—some reports suggest that binge drinking rates amongst non-married women are around 4 times more than married women.

In summary:

  • Drinking before pregnancy increases the risk of peri-and post-natal complications in the child.
  • Binge drinking before pregnancy increases the risk of drinking during pregnancy.
  • Cigarette smoking and other substance abuse increase the likelihood of consuming alcohol while pregnant.
  • Usually, alcohol use declines after the pregnancy is known.
  • A “safe” amount of alcohol that can be consumed has not been established. Even if low consumption has not shown to have deleterious post-natal effects, the long-term effects of any alcohol consumption are not known.

Can I Drink While Pregnant?

Although there is inadequate knowledge about the exact effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, the existing knowledge suggests that alcohol consumption has both primary and secondary negative consequences for the fetus.

  • Therefore, it is better to avoid drinking of any alcoholic beverages during pregnancy to prevent fetal damage and negative developmental consequences.


  • Bhuvaneswar, C. G., Chang, G., Epstein, L. A., & Stern, T. A. (2007). Alcohol Use During Pregnancy: Prevalence and Impact. The Primary Care Companion - Clinical Psychiatry, 455-460.
  • France, K. E., Donovan, R. J., Henley, N., Bower, C., Elliott, E. J., Payne, J. M., & ... Bartu, A. E. (2013). Promoting
  • Rosemary, M. (2011). Drinking during pregnancy: The Journal of the Health Visitors' Association. Community Practitioner, 84(4), 42.
  • Skagerstro´m, J., Chang, G., & Nilsen, P. (2011). Predictors of Drinking During Pregnancy: A Systematic Review. Journal of Women's Health, 20(6), 901-913.
  • Woulfe, A. (2004). Drinking While Pregnant: Tie Utility of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosis. Retrieved from Humanistic Studies Thesis (Ph.D.)--State University of New York.


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