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Drinking During Pregnancy: Dangers and Effects

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Alcohol use during pregnancy is a serious public health concern that can cause many problems for you and your unborn baby. If you are pregnant (or are thinking about getting pregnant) and you use alcohol, it’s a good idea to learn about the effects of alcohol abuse during pregnancy. This may encourage you to decide to stop or limit drinking, which can help ensure both your and your baby’s health. Drinking while pregnant can cause many problems that could likely be prevented or reduced if you decide to avoid alcohol during pregnancy.

Is it Safe to Drink Alcohol During Pregnancy?

Health experts say that there’s no such thing as safe drinking during pregnancy.9,10 In 2005, the U.S. Surgeon General advised against drinking alcohol during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects and other negative outcomes.1 These risks include:2–6

  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). We don’t know the exact number of people born with FASDs, but medical records indicate that fewer than 2 per 1,000 births.2
  • Stillbirth. Drinking alcohol while pregnant increases the risk of stillbirth by 40%, according to one study.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Drinking during pregnancy, especially binge drinking, increases the risk of infant death.
  • Miscarriage. Among pregnant women who had 5 or fewer drinks per week, each additional drink per week increased miscarriage risk by 6%.
Drinking While Pregnant

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is more common than you may think. A 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found that:2

  • 1 in 9 pregnant women said they used alcohol in the past 30 days.
  • About 3 in 9 pregnant drinkers reported binge drinking (having 4 or more drinks in a short period of time) in the past 30 days.
  • The rates of binge drinking while pregnant increased between 2011 and 2018.

Many women do reduce or even stop drinking or using other substances during pregnancy.7 But data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows this is often only temporary, as many resume using alcohol or other substances after they give birth.7

What Happens When You Drink Alcohol During Pregnancy?

Alcohol abuse during pregnancy can not only cause harm to you and your unborn baby, but it can also harm your baby after birth and cause long-term intellectual, behavioral, and physical problems.10 Alcohol can damage your health and put you at an increased risk of many emotional and physical problems. Over time, alcohol can cause a higher risk of certain cancers, liver disease, heart problems, and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.8

The effects of drugs and alcohol on unborn babies can cause stillbirth, miscarriage, and other post-birth problems. Alcohol use during early pregnancy can affect fetus development (as early as 4 weeks into pregnancy) and harm the development of your unborn baby’s heart, central nervous system, eyes, arms, and legs.9

How Does Alcohol Affect a Baby?

When you drink alcohol during pregnancy, it passes into your baby’s blood through the umbilical cord.10 Alcohol stays in your baby’s blood longer than in your blood, and this prolonged exposure to alcohol in the womb can lead to many problems after birth.9 Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions caused by prenatal alcohol exposure.9 FASDs can cause many physical, behavioral, and intellectual problems with lifelong effects.10,11

infographic shows the physical, behavioral, intellectual, and lifelong effects of drinking while pregnant

Does Alcohol Cause Miscarriage?

Yes, the CDC reports that using alcohol during pregnancy can cause miscarriage.10 Even moderate amounts of alcohol (1 drink or less per day) can increase the risk of miscarriage.8,12

How to Detox from Alcohol While Pregnant

Pregnancy may complicate or change the care you need to keep you and your baby safe when quitting alcohol, so it’s important to seek medical help instead of trying to quit on your own.7,13 Detox is often the first step in recovery from alcohol use and alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is the clinical term for alcohol addiction.13 Professional medical detox can help you and your unborn baby stay as safe and comfortable as possible while you go through alcohol withdrawal.

Pregnancy can introduce some unique challenges to treatment. Not all treatment programs have the staff and resources to treat people who are pregnant.7 In addition, some states consider substance use during pregnancy to be criminal child abuse that must be reported to the law.14 In some cases, these policies also apply to alcohol.14

However, seeking help is critical to your health and your unborn baby’s health. It is especially important if you use other substances in addition to alcohol. This is called polysubstance use. Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that in pregnant women who used opioids for non-medical reasons, nearly half said they used alcohol, and almost one-third reported binge drinking in the past 30 days.15 Polysubstance use can increase the risk of losing your baby, premature birth, and infant death.15

Find Alcohol Detox Near Me

Treatment can help you stop drinking and prevent or reduce many of the risks to you and your baby. American Addiction Centers offers medical detox that can help you safely and more comfortably manage withdrawal, which may help ensure the best possible outcomes for both you and your unborn baby. Please reach out to us today to discuss the treatment and rehab options that are best for your needs.

While we understand that not only women get pregnant, we have used that term here to reflect what the statistics say.

Sources

  1. Tan, C. H., Denny, C. H., Cheal, N. E., Sniezek, J. E., & Kanny, D. (2015). Alcohol use and binge drinking among women of childbearing age – United States, 2011-2013. Morbidity and mortality weekly report, 64(37), 1042–1046.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, February 4). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs): Data and Statistics.
  3. Denny, C. H., Acero, C. S., Naimi, T. S., & Kim, S. Y. (2019). Consumption of alcohol beverages and binge drinking among pregnant women aged 18-44 years – United States, 2015-2017. Morbidity and mortality weekly report, 68(16), 365–368.
  4. Bailey, B. A., & Sokol, R. J. (2011). Prenatal alcohol exposure and miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm delivery, and sudden infant death syndrome. Alcohol research & health, 34(1), 86–91.
  5. O’Leary, C. M., Jacoby, P. J., Bartu, A., D’Antoine, H., & Bower, C. (2013). Maternal alcohol use and sudden infant death syndrome and infant mortality excluding SIDS. Pediatrics, 131(3), e770–e778.
  6. Sundermann, A. C., Zhao, S., Young, C. L., Lam, L., Jones, S. H., Velez Edwards, D. R., & Hartmann, K. E. (2019). Alcohol use in pregnancy and miscarriage: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, 43(8), 1606–1616.
  7. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2009). Tip 51: Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 11). Alcohol Use and Your Health.
  9. American Pregnancy Association. Alcohol and Pregnancy.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 24). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs): Alcohol Use in Pregnancy.
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, May 21). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs): Basics about FASDs.
  12. S. National Library of Medicine. (2021, August 5). MedlinePlus: Alcohol and pregnancy.
  13. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2015). Tip 45: Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment.
  14. Guttmacher Institute. (2021, August 1). Substance Use During Pregnancy.
  15. Klaman, S. L., Andringa, K., Horton, E., & Jones, H. E. (2019). Concurrent opioid and alcohol use among women who become pregnant: Historical, current, and future perspectives. Substance abuse: research and treatment, 13, 1178221819852637.

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