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Drinking While Pregnant [Is it safe?] Plus, Alternatives

Drinking While Pregnant [Is it safe?] Plus, Alternatives


10 minute read

Although moderate drinking while pregnant seems unlikely to pose a threat, drinking any amount during pregnancy is not proven safe. Drinking a glass of wine here and there may or may not harm your infant, but scientists can’t really test how much alcohol is okay to drink during pregnancy.

It’s unethical, tbh. Babies are literally the future.

The Surgeon General doesn’t require a pregnancy disclaimer on drinks with less than 0.5% alcohol. That’s why non-alcoholic wine is usually considered a good alternative to your favorite evening drink.

Nowadays, there are plenty of alcohol-free wines, beers, and spirits — as well as mocktails — that can satisfy that brunchtime or after-dinner craving.

Still, some women enjoy a glass of wine from time to time while they’re pregnant, whether they know they’re pregnant or not. And a lot of the time, their baby is delivered with no health problems.

So, what does science say?

According to researchers’ best estimates, 1 in 13 women who drink alcohol while pregnant deliver babies with alcohol-related defects. However, this includes places like Europe and South Africa and special people groups where fetal alcohol syndrome rates are already high.

In the US, that “1 in 13” figure is probably a lot less scary, though it’s hard to say by exactly how much.

We’ll sort through the scientific evidence and your burning questions in this article.

Fun fact: The CDC actually recommends that “sexually active women who stop using birth control should stop drinking alcohol.”

Is it safe to drink alcohol while pregnant?

No, it is not safe to drink any alcohol while pregnant, according to the best research available. Although moderate alcohol consumption might not seriously endanger your growing little, scientists can’t prove there’s a safe limit.

Because ethical committees would never allow researchers to give alcohol to expectant mothers, we can’t know the exact amount of alcohol it takes to cause health problems in a developing fetus. Actually, it’s pretty challenging to determine the factors that directly lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).

For this reason, the CDC warns, “There is no safe time to drink during pregnancy. Alcohol can cause problems for a developing baby throughout pregnancy, including before a woman knows she’s pregnant.”

However, this is the better-safe-than-sorry approach, since researchers can’t very well observe pregnant women drinking, and can’t know for sure how much alcohol causes defects, or what other factors worsen the effects of alcohol on an unborn baby.

Now, this can be controversial. Although the government is advising pregnant women to be cautious, their warnings are not based on precise scientific evidence.

And we’re definitely not suggesting anyone give a pregnant woman alcohol for an experiment.

After all, there are plenty of reasons to give up alcohol to improve your health (baby or no baby).

How much alcohol can you drink while pregnant? It is unknown how much alcohol you can drink while pregnant. While there is no evidence that a drink every so often is harmful, there is also no evidence that a drink every so often is safe.

Can I have a glass of wine while pregnant? There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant. A single glass of wine may affect your child, but it is almost impossible to scientifically show whether or not a single glass of wine is okay to have while pregnant.

Evidence against drinking while pregnant:

  • No one knows how much alcohol is safe, so abstaining completely is considered the safest solution.
  • There is evidence that heavy drinking and/or binge drinking (more than 4 drinks over 2-3 hours) can lead to neurodevelopmental disorders or fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
  • A 2013 study found that moderate drinking during pregnancy was associated with child behavioral problems, but not any developmental or physical problems.
  • 1 in 13 women who consumed alcohol during pregnancy delivered a newborn with FAS. This is a global figure that includes Europe and South Africa, as well as incarcerated people and psychiatric patients, which all see higher rates of FAS.
  • Alcohol industry-funded websites have been found to misrepresent evidence about the risks of consuming alcohol while pregnant. So be careful about what website you’re reading from.

Evidence that drinking while pregnant isn’t the worst thing ever:

  • There is currently no published evidence that FAS occurs statistically more often in anyone besides heavy drinkers.
  • Among women who heavily drink throughout pregnancy, only 4% to 5% of those infants will be born with FAS. Moreover, that same comprehensive review concluded, “no consistent evidence of adverse effects from low-to-moderate prenatal alcohol consumption”.
  • FAS usually develops in infants whose mothers not only drank, but also smoked, used drugs, were depressed, experienced poverty, had a poor diet, and/or were older than the average mother.
  • There is potential evidence that binge drinking (and a high peak blood alcohol content) is associated with neurodevelopmental disorders.
  • Driving or riding in a car while pregnant is riskier than having a single drink. However, it should be noted that driving places is a necessity in today’s world, whereas drinking is definitely not. 
  • There is no well-accepted evidence that small amounts of alcohol cause fetal alcohol syndrome. This widespread idea seems to be predicated on the fact that heavy drinking and binge drinking is shown to cause birth defects. Therefore, experts say, an occasional drink might cause little defects — which is not how science is supposed to work.

How Drinking While Pregnant Can Affect Your Baby

Drinking alcoholic drinks while pregnant may affect your baby by leading to FASD, the most severe of which is FAS. According to the available research, FASDs typically result from heavy drinking or binge drinking.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) symptoms include:

  • Distinctive facial features, such as small eyes, thin upper lip, upturned nose, and a smooth ridge between nose and lip
  • Low birth weight
  • Slow physical growth before and after birth
  • Deformities of the extremities
  • Hyperactivity
  • Sleep problems
  • Poor memory
  • Poor speech skills
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Struggling with academic performance (particularly with math)
  • Learning disabilities

FASD may be misdiagnosed as ADHD or Williams syndrome.

It is unknown how much alcohol is needed to result in FASD. It seems that many people can drink casually and develop no problems with their infants. Others may develop FASD after a drink or two. There are multiple factors the scientific community does not understand.

So, to be safe, all women are advised against drinking any amount of alcohol.

Dr. Jen Gunter, of the New York Times, is an obstetrician who says the “best analogy for the risk associated with alcohol consumption in pregnancy is driving with your newborn unbuckled in the back seat.”

There are multiple factors in driving with an unbuckled infant: the weather, the speed, the number of cars, the newborn’s ability to withstand any impact.

Similarly, a pediatrician may admit the chances of a car accident on the way home from the hospital are small. Yet, no pediatrician would tell a new mother, “Sure, drive unbuckled just this once. It’s a celebration.”

Dr. Gunter also goes on to say, “Guidance to not drink while pregnant is not sexist.” An outspoken feminist herself, she posits that much historical medical advice given over the years is sexist against women.

However, providing women with scientific and accurate information is a different matter entirely.

How much alcohol is safe during pregnancy?

There is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy. It is almost impossible to scientifically show if a glass of wine every so often is safe or not, because, well... ethics.

There is clear evidence that heavy drinking or binge drinking (more than 4 drinks within 2-3 hours) can lead to FAS and central nervous system problems.

There’s one study that suggests moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy may lead to behavior problems in the child.

The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the National Institutes of Health, and many other organizations recommend absolutely NO consumption of alcohol during any stage of pregnancy.

What if I drank before I knew I was pregnant?

If you drank before you knew you were pregnant, tell your doctor. In general, a glass of wine after work or a single drink with friends on a Friday night probably won’t cause a problem.

There is evidence that binge drinking can cause health problems in unborn babies. If you drank more than 4 drinks within 2-3 hours while you didn’t know you were pregnant, definitely discuss the situation with your healthcare provider.

How early in pregnancy does alcohol affect the baby? Drinking alcohol early in the pregnancy, during the first 3 months of pregnancy (first trimester), seems to be the window of time where the alcohol can enter the placenta and most affect the baby — possibly resulting in low birth weight, premature birth, stillbirth, or miscarriage.

Important note: Stress is not good for the baby. The baby will be better off if the mother avoids chronic stress and anxiety. You’re doing great, mom!

Statistics

  • About 11% of women in the United States drink alcohol while pregnant. About a third of those women binge drink while pregnant.
  • About 16% of women in Europe drink while pregnant. The highest rate is in the United Kingdom, where more than 28% of women drink during pregnancy.
  • European women reporting alcohol consumption while pregnant were more likely to be older, highly educated, and employed.
  • Over 600,000 newborns are delivered every year with FASDs.
  • Globally, 1 in 13 women who drink during pregnancy delivers an infant with FAS.
  • The rate of FAS in newborns is highest in European countries and South Africa, and amongst aboriginal people, incarcerated people, and psychiatric patients.

What to Drink While You’re Pregnant (Instead of Alcohol)

Finally, the fun stuff! Let’s talk about alternatives to alcohol that you can enjoy while you’re pregnant:

For your information, drinks that contain less than 0.5% alcohol can be labeled non-alcoholic, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Surely’s delicious non-alcoholic rosé does contain trace amounts of alcohol, but always under 0.5% alcohol, the universally accepted limit for non-alcoholic beverages. This is a similar level of alcohol to kombucha or many fruit juices that contain trace amounts of alcohol due to natural fermentation.

Is non-alcoholic wine safe while pregnant? Non-alcoholic wine is generally considered safe while you’re pregnant. Check your favorite alcohol-removed wine brand to ensure their product is under 0.5% alcohol content. If you feel unsure, talk to your doctor.

If you need help...

Contact these support groups if you need help with alcohol abuse, especially during pregnancy:

Long-term recovery from alcohol abuse typically requires months/years of help and professional support. Unfortunately, when an infant is at increased risk, mothers don’t have the luxury of time.

But there are countless support groups available to help expectant mothers who struggle with alcohol consumption.

You do not have to be ashamed or afraid. Seeking help is the bravest step you can take.

Sources

  1. More than 3 million US women at risk for alcohol-exposed pregnancy
  2. The Association of Mild, Moderate, and Binge Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Child Neuropsychological Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis
  3. Global Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Among Children and Youth
  4. Pregnancy, Fertility, Breastfeeding, and Alcohol Consumption: An Analysis of Framing and Completeness of Information Disseminated by Alcohol Industry–Funded Organizations
  5. Making Sense of Advice About Drinking During Pregnancy: Does Evidence Even Matter?
  6. Review of fetal alcohol effects 
  7. Fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effects.
  8. Systematic review of the fetal effects of prenatal binge‐drinking

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