By: Emmalynn Pepper Clemmensen, MS, LPCC, CRC
One of the most important concerns during pregnancy is the health of the mother and baby. For this reason, it is important for the mother during pregnancy to avoid certain substances, such as tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs that may be harmful to the developing fetus.1
An alcohol use disorder, or alcohol addiction, may be present when someone spends much time and effort obtaining and consuming alcohol and continues to use despite negative consequences, such as job loss, relationship issues, financial stress, or legal problems.3 In the United States, approximately 4.6% of 12- to 17-year-olds have an alcohol use disorder, and approximately 8.5% of adults 18 years and older have an alcohol use disorder.3 Chronic alcohol abuse can lead to physiological dependence, which occurs when the body adjusts to the presence of a substance. When dependence develops, the individual will experience uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms when they abruptly quit drinking. Dependence is a physical adaptation but its presence can contribute to the development of the larger, more complex condition of addiction. For example, continuing to drink to avoid or alleviate distressing withdrawal symptoms associated with dependence can ultimately lead to alcoholism.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, depending on the severity of your addiction, the duration of drinking, the average amount consumed, individual physiology, age, co-occurring mental or physical conditions, etc. Therefore, cold turkey withdrawal could be dangerous to both you and your unborn child. Because of this, professional support during the detoxification process is strongly recommended.2
If you are trying to get pregnant or already are pregnant and struggle with alcohol abuse, please seek help from an addiction specialist or your primary care physician, as there are serious risks associated with detoxing on your own.
Quitting alcohol on your own can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms and can be very dangerous to both you and your baby. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:3,4
Some of the most serious withdrawal symptoms are depressed mood, hallucinations, and severe confusion, as these symptoms could lead to erratic behavior, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or suicide attempts. Seizures, especially grand mal, are also especially dangerous as they could lead to serious complications, or accidents that could even be fatal (i.e. falling, head injury). Furthermore, experiencing these symptoms during pregnancy could place undue stress on the unborn baby and could lead to fetal death.2 If you have developed a significant amount of alcohol dependence, it is crucial that you seek professional medical assistance when quitting alcohol to reduce the risks to you and your baby.
Detoxification is the process of eliminating all harmful substances from the body. In some cases, detox may occur in a variety of professional settings. However, when detoxing from alcohol while pregnant, it is recommended that the process takes place in an inpatient or hospital setting where you will receive 24-hour support to ensure safety.2
In many instances, medications such as benzodiazepines and antipsychotics may be used during the detoxification process to ease the symptoms of withdrawal.2 However, in pregnant women extra precaution needs to be taken. Research seems to be mixed regarding whether or not benzodiazepines are safe during pregnancy, so each case needs to be considered carefully. If it seems as though the potential benefits of using benzodiazepines to manage alcohol withdrawal during pregnancy outweighs the potential risks then, on a case-by-case basis, they may be used during the detox process.2
Medical staff provide around-the-clock supervision and treatment in the event that any complications arise, due to withdrawal or co-occurring medical conditions. You will receive mental health support as well, from a therapist or psychologist, which can help you through this trying process. Detox treatment provides you with a safe environment while ultimately aiming to achieve stabilization.
After the detoxification process occurs, it is important to then transition to an alcohol abuse treatment program. Participating in such a program can help you identify factors that lead to alcohol use and how to work through and cope with such factors in healthier ways. Building a solid foundation of coping skills will help reduce the likelihood of relapse, and lead to successful recovery, all of which can happen with the support of a professional treatment program.
Again, continuing to consume alcohol while pregnant can be detrimental for both you and your baby. Continued use can impair the development of the fetus and lead to serious long-term problems. Furthermore, if you drink throughout your pregnancy your baby may become dependent on alcohol and experience withdrawal symptoms once born. Withdrawal symptoms may be delayed in newborns since they metabolize alcohol slower than adults do.5 Such symptoms include:5
Some of the neonatal alcohol withdrawal symptoms can lead to death, which is why it is so important to seek professional help as soon as possible so you can help to reduce the risks associated with withdrawal, as well as development problems that can occur due to fetal alcohol exposure.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions that develop as a result of maternal drinking during pregnancy.6 There is no established safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy or when attempting to get pregnant and there is no known time that it is safe to drink during pregnancy. FASDs can impact cognition, behavior, and development, impairing a person throughout their lifetime, but they can be prevented by seeking treatment and becoming sober.6 The types of FASDs include:6
The risks and consequences of drinking while pregnant can be very severe and dangerous.
Symptoms of FASDs vary in severity, and may include:6
The risks and consequences of drinking while pregnant can be very severe and dangerous. Therefore, if you are trying to get pregnant or are already pregnant, and addicted to alcohol, it is critical that you quit drinking as soon as possible. Lastly, it is extremely important that when quitting you seek the support and assistance of professional, medical help to ensure both you and your baby’s safety and overall wellbeing.