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What Happens When Pregnant Women Drink Alcohol?
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can put both a mother and her child at an increased risk for health problems.
Alcohol in your blood passes through the placenta and the umbilical cord to your baby. The placenta provides the baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord.
Drinking any amount of alcohol during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol effects.
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to:
- Physical disabilities
- Behavioral disabilities
- Intellectual disabilities
Studies show that consistent drinking and binge drinking puts a fetus at high risk for health complications.
No amount of alcohol is safe for consumption during pregnancy.
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2018 to 2020:
- 13.5 percent of pregnant women reported drinking alcohol within the last 30 days
- 5.2 percent reported binge drinking during the same time frame
How Much Alcohol Is Dangerous?
There is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Both the CDC and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) advise pregnant women not to consume any form of alcohol. It has been shown to cause severe and negative effects on the baby's development (fetus).
Some people believe moderate alcohol consumption is acceptable during the first trimester. However, it is safest to avoid alcohol altogether.
Alcohol can cause issues for the developing fetus throughout pregnancy. This includes early pregnancy before a woman even knows she is pregnant.
Effects of Drinking Alcohol While Pregnant
The number one preventable cause of congenital disabilities in the U.S. is prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol.
Drinking alcohol during the first three months of pregnancy can result in abnormal facial features.
Drinking alcohol at any point during pregnancy can cause:
- Growth issues
- Behavioral issues
- Low birth weight
- Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
- Physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities
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.
Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
The term “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders” (FASD) defines a spectrum of effects caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
- Partial FAS (pFAS)
- Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)
- Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)
- 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.
FASD may produce abnormal facial features such as:
- Narrow eye openings
- Greater distances between eyes
- Thin upper lips
- Smooth ridges between the nose and upper lip (philtrum)
Additional symptoms include:
- Smaller heads
- Shorter heights
- Lower body weights
People with FASD may experience vision or hearing issues. It can also affect the heart, kidney, or bones.
They are also at a higher risk to suffer from mental illnesses such as:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Substance use disorders
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.
Children with FASD may struggle in school. Common symptoms include:
- Learning disabilities
- Memory problems
- Difficulty understanding and following directions
FASD can impact a person’s ability to communicate and socialize. They may make struggle with:
- Poor decisions
- Repeating mistakes
- Understanding the consequences of their actions
- Personal hygiene
- Money management
- Telling time
- Personal safety
Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder for Pregnant Women
Pregnant women who suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) often have co-occurring disorders. 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 three FDA approved medications for treating AUDs:
All of these are category C medications. This means there is evidence of adverse effects of the drug on the fetus of animals. But there have been no experiments to measure safety when used by humans.
Treatment providers must consider the risks of treating pregnant women with medication.
Addiction Treatment Programs
There are a few types of addiction treatment programs that can help pregnant women:
Inpatient treatment programs are the most effective rehab programs. These are intensive programs that last 30, 60, 90 days. They may last longer in certain cases.
In these programs, the patient lives, sleeps, eats, and undergoes treatment at the facility.
Partial Hospitalization Programs
Partial hospitalization programs (PHPs)are also called intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). They are almost as intensive as inpatient programs, but you return home to sleep.
Outpatient programs are less intensive than inpatient and PHPs. They offer a more flexible treatment schedule.
They are best for people who have work, home, or school responsibilities, along with a high motivation to get sober.
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.