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Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can put both a mother and her child at an increased risk for health problems.

When you consume alcohol during pregnancy, the alcohol in your blood passes through the placenta and the umbilical cord to your baby. The placenta grows in the uterus (womb) and provides the baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord.

Drinking any amount of alcohol during pregnancy can lead to damaging fetal alcohol effects. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, and various lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities.

Studies show that consistent drinking and binge drinking (consuming four or more drinks per occasion) puts a fetus at high risk for health complications.

No amount of alcohol is safe for consumption during pregnancy. Exposure to alcohol in the womb can have serious adverse mental and phyiscal health effects on a child that can last into adulthood.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), From 2011 to 2013, 10 percent of pregnant women reported drinking alcohol within the last 30 days, and 3.1 percent reported binge drinking during the same time frame. Binge drinking is a consumption of alcohol pattern that brings a person’s blood alcohol content to 0.08 percent or above. It is typically achieved by drinking around four drinks in two hours for most women.

How Much Alcohol Is Dangerous?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), pregnant women should not consume any form of alcohol as it has been shown to cause severe and negative effects on the development of the baby (fetus). There is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume while pregnant or breastfeeding.

Drinking any alcohol can be harmful to your baby, even if it is just an occasional drink or a glass of wine. While some people believe moderate alcohol consumption is acceptable during the first trimester, it is safest to avoid alcohol altogether.

Alcohol can cause issues for the developing fetus throughout pregnancy, including during early pregnancy before a woman even knows she is pregnant.

Drinking alcohol during the first three months of pregnancy can result in the baby having abnormal facial features. Growth and central nervous system issues such as behavioral issues and low birth weight can develop from drinking alcohol at any point during pregnancy.

The baby’s brain develops throughout pregnancy and can be affected by alcohol exposure at any time. If you are drinking alcohol during pregnancy, it is never too late to stop. The sooner you stop drinking, the better it will be for you and your baby.

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Effects of Drinking Alcohol While Pregnant

The number one preventable cause of congenital disabilities (birth defects), abnormalities, and developmental disabilities in the U.S. is prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol. Drinking during pregnancy can cause a variety of severe effects of alcohol, including:

  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities

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Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Scientists use the term “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders” (FASD) to define a spectrum of effects and symptoms caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.

These include Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Partial FAS (pFAS), Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND), Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD), and Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE).

Everyone with FASD has a unique set of symptoms that cause long-term issues. These symptoms and afflictions present themselves in a variety of ways.

  • Physical FASD may produce abnormal facial features such as narrow eye openings, greater distances between eyes, thin upper lips, and smooth ridges between the nose and upper lip (philtrum). Individuals exposed to alcohol prenatally may also have smaller heads, shorter heights, and lower body weights.
  • Medical Individuals with FASD may experience vision or hearing issues, as well as problems with the heart, kidney, or bones.
  • Mental health They are also at a higher risk to suffer from mental illnesses such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders.
  • Behavioral People with FASD often have attention issues and may struggle to focus or shift their attention. They also struggle to control their emotions and impulsivity.
  • Educational Learning disabilities, memory problems, and difficulty understanding and following directions are common symptoms.
  • Social FASD can impact a person’s ability to communicate and socialize. They may make poor decisions, repeat mistakes, and have difficulty understanding the consequences of their actions. They may also struggle with everyday life skills such as eating, personal hygiene, money management, telling time, and personal safety.

Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder for Pregnant Women

Many doctors state that any alcohol consumption during pregnancy is abuse because it can potentially affect the baby. All babies exposed to alcohol in the womb risk developing a lifelong condition or disorder. The most severe cases of FAS link to the mother’s excessive drinking during pregnancy.

Pregnant women who suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) often have co-occurring disorders or especially difficult circumstances, in addition to AUD. It is especially important to treat pregnant women who drink with kindness and compassion.

Treatment for alcohol use disorder for pregnant women should involve:

  • Women-centered care
  • Comprehensive care (prenatal care as well as substance use counseling)
  • Respect and non-judgment
  • A harm-reduction philosophy

Medication Treatment Options

There are currently three FDA approved medications for treating AUDs in the United States:

  • Naltrexone
  • Disulfiram
  • Acamprosate

All of these are category C medications — meaning that there is evidence of adverse effects of the drug on the fetus of animals, but there have been no experiments to measure the safety when used by humans. Therefore, it is vital to consider the risks of treating pregnant women with alcohol use disorders with medication.

Behavioral Treatment Options

Behavioral treatment options for pregnant women with AUDs are the same as non-pregnant women. They include:

  • Motivational enhancement therapy
  • Brief interventions
  • Cognitive behavioral therapies
  • Supportive counseling and therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Educational strategies and programs
  • Support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous

There is no one treatment option that is more effective than the others. It is crucial to review all professional treatment options and find the one that best suits the individual’s needs. If you are unsure which treatment option is best for you, discuss your options with some health care providers.

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol use disorder during pregnancy, it’s important that they get help. Reach out to a professional today.

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Resources

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May, Philip A, and J Phillip Gossage. “Maternal risk factors for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: not as simple as it might seem.” Alcohol Research & Health: the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism vol. 34,1 (2011): 15-26, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23580036/

Day, Nancy L., et al. “The Association Between Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Behavior at 22 Years of Age.” Wiley Online Library, 26 Feb. 2013, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/acer.12073.

DeVido, Jeffrey et al. “Alcohol use disorders in pregnancy.” Harvard review of psychiatry vol. 23,2 (2015): 112-21. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000070, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25747924/

“Fetal Alcohol Exposure.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 24 Dec. 2019, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/fetal-alcohol-exposure.

“Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 Mar. 2018, www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html.

Dejong, Katherine et al. “Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.” Clinical obstetrics and gynecology vol. 62,1 (2019): 142-155. doi:10.1097/GRF.0000000000000414, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7061927/

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