When you’re pregnant, anything you put in your body doesn’t just affect you—it can also impact the health of your unborn child. This includes alcohol, and it’s extremely important to understand what the implications are for you and your baby.
Alcohol abuse during pregnancy can lead to serious problems, like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Even small amounts of alcohol can lead to lifelong disabilities.
It’s important to note that alcohol addiction is the most common substance abuse problem in the United States, with an estimated 16 million people struggling with alcoholism.1 If you’re struggling with problematic drinking and you are thinking of getting pregnant or just found out that you’re pregnant, you may want to seek professional assistance. It’s not too late to get help, even if you’re already pregnant; the sooner you stop drinking, the better the outcome for you and your unborn child. Detox and addiction treatment services can help you withdraw safely and obtain and maintain sobriety.
If you have been abusing alcohol while pregnant, it may help to know that you are not alone. There are other pregnant women out there struggling with alcohol abuse. Consider the following statistics:2,3
Regardless of what you may have heard, no amount of alcohol is safe to consume during pregnancy.
Alcohol affects your baby’s ability to develop normally. It is a serious concern for many women with unplanned pregnancies, because damage can be done even in the first few weeks. About half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, and women who aren’t expecting a pregnancy are less likely to notice that they are pregnant for several weeks.4 This is dangerous because by the time a woman realizes she is pregnant, fetal organ development is already underway.
When you drink during pregnancy, the alcohol in your blood passes to your baby through the umbilical cord. This means that the alcohol enters your baby’s blood stream. Drinking while pregnant significantly increases the chance of stillbirth, miscarriage, and a variety of intellectual, behavioral, and physical impairments or disabilities.5
Alcohol can damage your baby’s cells throughout several stages of development. There are two main stages of prenatal development. The first is the embryonic stage, which consists of the first 8 weeks after fertilization. The second stage is called the fetal stage, and it comprises the rest of development. During the embryonic stage, the body lays out the blueprints for organ development. Alcohol can severely affect these cells at various points over the course of their development, which can lead to miscarriage or serious birth defects.6
Weeks 3 to 6 of the embryonic stage encompass a critical period of early nervous system development. Alcohol can significantly disrupt this process anywhere from the third week through the third trimester, leading to a range of problems, such as a reduction in the brain’s white matter (leading to cognitive deficits) and hindrances in the creation and survival of brain cells.6
During the 3 to 6 week period, the basic structure of your baby’s face is developing. Alcohol can damage this process, causing permanent facial abnormalities. Further, by the fourth week, the heart has already begun to beat. Consuming alcohol can lead to improper valve formation and abnormal development of the ventricles and atria, which may have significant cardiac consequences later in life.6
It doesn’t matter which type of alcohol you drink, as anything alcoholic can harm your fetus. This includes beer, wine, and liquor. There are no established safe amounts of alcohol for a pregnant woman to consume.5 Also, there is no known safe time to drink throughout the pregnancy; drinking at any time during the baby’s development can cause critical and irreversible damage.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a group of disorders caused by exposure to alcohol in utero. The effects can include physical deformities, developmental disorders, and behavioral problems, although FASD affects everyone differently.4
It is difficult for researchers to determine exactly how many babies are born with FASD. Estimates suggest that anywhere from 2% to 5% of children may have symptoms of FASD.3 The most severe form of FASD is known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that between 0.2 and 1.5 infants have FAS for every 1,000 live births.3
Children with a FASD can show any of the following characteristics and behaviors:4
Some of the most recognizable characteristics of FAS, the most pronounced end of the spectrum, are certain facial deformities. These may include:7
The chance that your fetus will have serious disabilities increases if you binge drink or otherwise drink heavily. Drinking 4 or more drinks in one sitting and drinking often will both increase your baby’s risk of FAS.8
Some women are more likely to use alcohol during pregnancy than others. Risk factors include:7
Drinking while pregnant doesn’t just pose risks to the unborn baby; it can also be risky for the mother, leading to serious physical and psychological consequences that significantly impair her ability to function and care for a child.
Consequences of alcohol abuse include:9
Long-term alcohol abuse can cause lasting changes in the drinker’s brain that can make it more difficult to quit. Someone who abuses alcohol may become dependent on alcohol, which means that they have to drink to avoid or alleviate unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Dependence alone is not the same as addiction, as addiction also comprises a set of problematic behaviors, but continuing to drink once dependence has been established can eventually lead to alcoholism. Once someone develops an alcohol addiction, they will demonstrate compulsive and uncontrollable use regardless of the negative ramifications they experience.
Quitting drinking is a great idea if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. A supervised, medical detox is the safest setting to go through withdrawal, which can be uncomfortable and even life-threatening. If you have an alcohol addiction, then you should not try to quit drinking on your own. Quitting cold turkey can put both you and your baby at risk. A detox center for pregnant women can help you manage the symptoms of withdrawal and reduce the risk of fatal seizures for both you and your baby.10
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are different for everyone, but pregnant women have unique concerns. One of these concerns is that alcohol withdrawal, which involves increased glutamate neurotransmitter activity and NMDA receptor-mediated excitation within the central nervous system, can impact fetal brain cell health and development. Excessive NMDA receptor activation can lead to brain cell death and other developmental abnormalities than may translate into behavioral deficits later in life.10
The safest way to go through withdrawal is under close medical supervision. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms could include any of the following:11
One of the specific concerns for alcoholic pregnant women is that their baby could be born addicted to alcohol. If you’ve developed significant physiological alcohol dependence, your baby will have, too. When your baby is born and no longer has access to the alcohol in your bloodstream, he or she can go into withdrawal.10
Signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal in newborns include:10
In order to prevent any potential harms to your baby, including withdrawal symptoms, it’s important to seek formal treatment that can help you quit drinking safely and effectively.
Alcohol detoxification is the process during which your body rids itself of alcohol and re-adjusts to its sudden absence. When your body is dependent on alcohol, it must relearn how to function without it. As the body makes these adjustments, you will experience symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol detox programs provide monitoring and are able to administer medical care during this time, helping to ease the discomfort and prevent complications.
Alcohol detox programs are available in several different settings, including the following:
If needed, medical detox protocols will include the administration of certain medications to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and prevent or treat complications. Psychopharmacologic treatment of some comorbid mental health issues—such as mood and anxiety disorders—may also be recommended for pregnant women. A medical detox program may provide you with the following medications to manage withdrawal and prevent seizures:7
Detox is only the first step on the road to recovery. Getting through withdrawal safely is important for pregnant women, but it won’t help you stay sober. An addiction treatment program can give you the support you need to stay sober throughout your pregnancy and once your baby is born.
Ongoing substance abuse treatment can be a huge help to pregnant women and new mothers. Treatment programs offerings may consist of individual counseling, peer-to-peer support groups, and group therapy sessions. At the start of and throughout the treatment duration, compassionate and nonjudgmental professionals will provide evaluations to screen for comorbid psychiatric conditions, suicidality, and any thoughts about harming the child, while meeting the pregnant woman wherever she is in the process and providing emotional support.7 The most beneficial rehab options may include those that specialize in treating pregnant women and/or have daycare facilities.
Rehab centers for pregnant women and mothers offer special services that help you deal with the stresses of parenting. You will meet other women who understand what you are going through and can help you prepare for your new baby. Rehab centers for pregnant women may offer services, such as:
Substance abuse treatment can take place in a variety of different settings. Which one is right for you will depend on factors like cost, length, intensity, and location. Common treatment settings include:
Once you’ve completed detox and alcohol abuse treatment, it’s important to continue receiving ongoing support and treatment to prevent relapse. Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Sober Mommies, can help you to remain focused on your recovery. Other common aftercare options include group counseling, individual therapy, and sober living homes.