Pregnancy and alcohol

Since the safe limits of alcohol during pregnancy are not known, it is recommended that you stop drinking completely.

When the pregnancy test shows positive, many mothers-to-be stop to think about their lifestyles. Nutrition, exercise, rest and substance use affect not only the mother’s health and well-being but also those of the unborn baby. Lifestyle choices during pregnancy can have far-reaching consequences on both the mother’s and the baby’s life. 

For most future mothers, stopping drinking is an obvious choice that they do not need to think about or justify to themselves or anyone else. The spouse and friends play a crucial role in supporting abstinence during pregnancy. It is increasingly common for the expectant mother’s spouse to also reduce their alcohol use so as to create optimal conditions for the baby’s healthy development. However, it can be surprisingly difficult for some mothers to stop drinking. If the mother is used to heavy drinking, her body will not adjust easily to changes. Friends and family can be a great help by taking the mother into account in situations that involve drinking.

Zero tolerance when planning pregnancy

It is a good idea to think about your alcohol use when planning pregnancy or, at the latest, when pregnancy has started. Since the safe limits of alcohol during pregnancy are not known, it is recommended that you stop drinking completely. The latest research shows that alcohol can damage the fetus before the mother even knows pregnancy has started. It is therefore advisable to give up alcohol at the planning stage. The more the mother uses alcohol, the greater the risk of fetal damage. Binge drinking – even occasionally – is particularly dangerous. The effects of alcohol on the fetus vary, and a small amount can also lead to fetal damage. It is good to remember that even moderate alcohol use can affect fertility and make it more difficult to get pregnant.

What happens to the baby when you drink?

When an expectant mother drinks, alcohol passes through the placenta and the umbilical cord to all tissues of the fetus. When the fetus urinates, alcohol also passes to the amniotic fluid, from where it enters the fetus again when the fetus ‘drinks’. 

Alcohol is toxic to the fetus as it cannot break down alcohol as an adult can. The level of alcohol in the amniotic fluid declines more slowly than in the mother’s or the fetus’s blood. The level can therefore sometimes be higher in the amniotic fluid. Ultimately, alcohol passes back to the mother, whose liver eliminates it.

Alcohol can harm the unborn baby

Heavy alcohol use is the greatest single reason for fetal development disorders. It is estimated that each year, 600–3,000 children are born with some degree of alcohol-related damage. The fetus’s central nervous system continues to develop throughout pregnancy, and alcohol can damage the fetus at every stage.

The spectrum of fetal damage caused by alcohol exposure is referred to using the term FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorders). This includes growth problems, delayed intellectual and language development, a range of central nervous system disorders, deformities, intellectual disability and mental symptoms. Less severe effects include speech, attention, concentration and social skills problems. The symptoms may not become apparent before school age.

Moderate use after pregnancy

Alcohol also gets through to breast milk. The alcohol levels of breast milk and blood are about the same. A nursing child receives some five per cent of the mother’s weight-adjusted dosage. Although the amount is not large enough for the baby to become intoxicated, it is recommended to avoid breastfeeding for three to four hours after drinking. 

Another thing worth remembering is that even a small child can sense the clumsiness, uncertainty and insecurity related to a parent’s intoxication. Would you trust your baby to a drunken person? You should be sober when caring for your baby, so that you can respond to the baby’s cues and needs. Alcohol changes the behaviour of adults. Something that is harmless fun for adults can be confusing, embarrassing or even frightening for a child.

Further information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Say no to alcohol during pregancy
There is no safe limit to alcohol during pregnancy. 
Read more about FASD.