Alcohol During Pregnancy: A Combination Best Avoided

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Alcohol During Pregnancy: A Combination Best Avoided

While the exact effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy are still under the scanner, experts agree it's best to avoid it. Alcohol may impact a pregnancy depending on the quantity and type of alcohol, as well as how early in the pregnancy it is consumed. Babies who have been exposed to high amounts of alcohol in the womb can develop Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). This is characterized by poor growth, delays in development, and abnormal facial features.

Becoming pregnant is the best excuse for taking extra care of yourself. The health of your body will directly impact the health of your baby, so it pays to be cautious about everything you eat, drink, and do during this precious and precarious time. Of the long and varying lists of pregnancy dos and don’ts, there is one thing that most experts agree on – avoiding alcohol.

Why Is Alcohol Dangerous?

The mother and baby are inextricably linked and any careless decision by the mother can be life-threatening for the baby. From the moment of conception, a baby gets all of its nutrients from the mother. When the mother drinks alcohol, it will travel through the blood and the placenta to the baby.1 We already know that heavy alcohol consumption can have adverse effects on any adult’s health – just imagine what it can do to an unborn child.

Ayurveda’s Views On Alcohol During Pregnancy

The ancient sciences and research seem to be on the same page on this one. Ayurveda believes that a baby’s time in the uterus lays the foundation for life. Therefore, it is vital that both mother and baby get the best nourishment and care possible during this time. Since the baby depends on the mother for everything, the mother’s diet must be considered with thought and care – and neither alcohol nor tobacco belongs in such a diet.

Effects Of Alcohol On The Baby: Before And After Delivery

High Exposure To Alcohol

Research has confirmed that alcohol is a teratogen – an agent or factor that causes malformation of an embryo throughout pregnancy. Alcohol is usually broken down in the body by alcohol dehydrogenase, which is an enzyme in liver cells. A baby’s liver is one of the last organs to develop and doesn’t mature until the later stages of pregnancy.2 This means that the baby has less alcohol dehydrogenase to metabolize the alcohol with and remains exposed to the alcohol for a longer time than the mother.3

Nutritional Deprivation

If the mother passes out, vomits, or has increased urine output as a result of drinking, she loses valuable electrolytes and other nutrients. She is also likely to feel drained and weak. All of this will deprive her baby of valuable nutrients.

Risk Of Abortion And Preterm Labor

Any alcohol consumption in the first trimester also increases the risk of spontaneous abortion by as much as four times. It can also precipitate preterm labor and can even lead to decreased production of breast milk after delivery. Stillbirth or a range of lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities after birth is also a possibility.4

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs)

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) is one serious repercussion when a mother drinks regularly or heavily through her pregnancy.5

Children with FASDs may have the following characteristics:

  • Facial abnormalities like a smooth philtrum (the ridge between the upper lip and the nose), a thin upper lip, and small and wide-set eyes.
  • Growth problems, such as below-average height, body weight, and head size – though this sometimes resolves in childhood.
  • Structural changes in the brain.
  • Other neurological issues, including difficulties with sucking and sleeping in infancy, poor muscle control, and poor coordination.
  • Cognitive deficiencies such as a low IQ or developmental delays in younger children.
  • Learning disabilities, poor memory, and inability to cope in school. This is often evident in delayed development of speech and language skills and difficulties in subjects like math.
  • Inability to reason or apply knowledge to situations. The child may also have trouble following directions and handling difficult life tasks.
  • Hyperactivity and inability to focus for too long.
  • Problems with social skills.
  • Problems with vision or hearing.
  • In some cases, complications with the heart, kidneys, and bones.6

Making Sense Of The Conflicting Views

Despite being clearly established as a teratogen since the 19th century, alcohol is consumed by approximately 15% of pregnant women, with rates as high as 20% reported in recent decades.7 Although most doctors advise against alcohol consumption during pregnancy, there have been opposing views. Some believe that consuming alcohol in very small doses, especially in the very early stages of pregnancy, is not as risky as previously believed. A Danish study in 2012 found that low to moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy did not affect normal functioning among 5-year-olds.8 Other studies suggest that while low to moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause functional damage to the brain, leading to adverse cognitive and neurological development, it does not affect other developments such as growth.9

But the bottom line is that the research isn’t yet conclusive, so why take the risk? Even though the effects of alcohol may not always be visible, every pregnancy is unique. While one fetus may be impacted, another may be absolutely healthy. Till studies are able to prove otherwise, the safest thing to do is to abstain from alcohol completely during pregnancy.

When Is Alcohol Most Dangerous?

The first trimester is considered to be the most sensitive of a pregnancy, and one where the mother must be overcautious. The risk of miscarriage is high here. And so is the impact on the tiny fetus in the nascent stages of formation.10

But do note that since the baby’s brain is constantly developing throughout pregnancy, the effects of alcohol can impact the brain, as well as the baby’s physical and neurological development, no matter what stage a woman is at in her pregnancy.11

Is All Alcohol Forbidden During Pregnancy?

Is it okay to indulge once in a while during pregnancy? For many women, a glass or two of alcohol is a pleasant part of their social life and they find it extremely difficult to avoid it completely. Further, many consider wine to be a mild alcoholic drink and, therefore, less harmful than beer or other liquor. However, the truth is that all alcohol can affect the unborn child. The risk factors and the exact impact of different types of alcohol are such an unknown that it is best to stay away from all forms of it.12

Drinking Before Knowing You Are Pregnant

The safest bet? If you’re planning a baby, stop drinking immediately. Don’t wait to find out you are pregnant.

Pregnancies can sometimes be unplanned or are discovered late. There is nothing a woman can do if she drank before finding out about the pregnancy. But it’s best to stop as soon as she finds out. Fetal growth is a stage-by-stage process and the effects of alcohol will often depend on the stage of pregnancy.13 14

Don’t Hesitate To Get Help To Stop Drinking

For some women, abstaining from alcohol can be a major challenge. A pregnant woman will face more challenges. These usually include lack of knowledge about the adverse effects of alcohol on the fetus, an insecurity about being judged, a sense of personal guilt, a fear of laws and legal complications, pressure from family and society, lack of accessibility to adequate prenatal care because they are too young (less than 20 years), and no support from society or family.15

However, there are many ways of getting help. It’s very important for families to support a woman who is struggling to stop drinking. The woman herself must understand that it’s never too late to stop. Here are some of the ways in which women can help themselves:

  • Stay away from people or places that can be “triggers.”
  • Do not keep alcohol at home.
  • Drink non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Contact your doctor and healthcare provider and ask for help and guidance.
  • Reach out to Alcoholics Anonymous groups and other local alcohol treatment centers if you can’t stop.

It’s natural to feel a varied range of emotions at this time, from guilt to relief to anger at the way in which the pregnancy may expose a longstanding alcohol problem. And if the pregnancy was unintended it can cause further emotional distress.16 But, as long as the health of the woman and her unborn child are the central focus, all of these issues can be dealt with and overcome with support and compassion.

References   [ + ]

1.Drinking alcohol while pregnant. NHS UK.
2.Drinking alcohol while pregnant. NHS U.K.
3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 15, 16.Bhuvaneswar, Chaya G., Grace Chang, Lucy A. Epstein, and Theodore A. Stern. “Alcohol use during pregnancy: prevalence and impact.” Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry 9, no. 6 (2007): 455.
6, 11.Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
8.Drinking a little alcohol early in pregnancy may be okay. Harvard Health Publications. 2016.
9.O’Keeffe, Linda M., Richard A. Greene, and Patricia M. Kearney. “The effect of moderate gestational alcohol consumption during pregnancy on speech and language outcomes in children: a systematic review.” Systematic reviews 3, no. 1 (2014): 1.
10, 13.Nykjaer, Camilla, Nisreen A. Alwan, Darren C. Greenwood, Nigel AB Simpson, Alastair WM Hay, Kay LM White, and Janet E. Cade. “Maternal alcohol intake prior to and during pregnancy and risk of adverse birth outcomes: evidence from a British cohort.” Journal of epidemiology and community health (2014): jech-2013.
14.Alcohol Use in Pregnancy. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

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