Prenatal Risks

Pregnancy and Alcohol Consumption

When a pregnant woman uses alcohol or drugs, she places her unborn child at risk for numerous serious problems, which may be irreversible.

Among pregnant women ages 15 to 44, 9.1 percent used alcohol and 3.1 percent reported binge drinking in the prior month.

Source: National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 2002.

Alcohol, found in wine, beer and liquors, is a toxic substance that is quickly transferred from the mother’s bloodstream to the baby’s. Because all the organs of the fetus are forming, they are particularly vulnerable to toxic substances, especially during the first three months of pregnancy. In the best interests of the baby, a pregnant woman should change certain habits from the very beginning of the pregnancy (e.g. cutting back her drinking, avoiding some psychiatric medicines, watching what she eats, etc.)

If you’ve just learned that you’re pregnant, but have had a few drinks recently, you don’t be overly concerned about your baby. It’s never too late to improve your child’s chances at good health by cutting down on your drinking, or safer still, by not drinking at all. Developmental problems in the fetus are generally linked to excessive, chronic drinking.

To date, researchers have not been able to determine the exact amount of alcohol that is “safe” for the development of the fetus. We do know, however, that the risks of miscarriage, birth defects, growth retardation and mental disorders increase the more the mother drinks, and the more frequently she drinks. Moderate, occasional drinking is a responsible approach for a pregnant woman. However, not drinking at all is even safer. In any case, a pregnant woman who is thinking about drinking, even moderately, should consult her doctor so that she can make an educated decision.

Heavy drinking, however, can gravely affect the fetus. A pregnant woman who frequently drinks heavily is more likely to give birth to a child with a specific condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS. FAS includes a number of problems such as growth retardation, mental disorders, an abnormally small head or other facial and skeletal abnormalities, and malformations of the heart. Occasional heavy drinking also increases the risk of similar problems.

Any woman who can’t stop drinking should discuss the problem with her doctor or another medical professional before even thinking about getting pregnant, and then throughout the pregnancy, to ensure she gets the support she needs to abstain.

The risk is reduced considerably if you drink in moderation (i.e., one or two glasses of wine). Alcohol becomes increasingly toxic the more you drink and the more frequently you drink. But keep in mind that alcohol is never the only factor involved in the development of the baby. The parents’ basic health, their medical history, their lifestyle, the mother’s diet, outside pollutants, tobacco and drug use during pregnancy, and other socioeconomic factors all have an impact. Even under ideal conditions, no woman can completely control the outcome of her pregnancy.

If it’s important to you on particular occasions, like an anniversary or birthday, you can safely drink one or two glasses of wine while eating, especially at the end of your pregnancy. But under no circumstances does anyone have the right to force you to drink. And nobody should make a pregnant woman feel guilty for drinking a small amount.

A woman who is breast-feeding must think about her baby’s well-being, before choosing to drink. A nursing mother should eat a balanced diet, get plenty of rest, and be careful about her alcohol consuption. You should not drink while actually nursing, because the baby will absorb the same amount of alcohol as you do, as it nurses. If you combine breast-feeding with bottle-feeding, you can drink moderately on occasion (no more than the equivalent of two drinks), and give the baby a bottle at those times. Be aware that it takes a minimum of two hours for your body to eliminate the alcohol in one drink.

Adapted from: The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, “Pregnancy and Drinking: Your Questions Answered” a Educ’alcool program, produced in cooperation with the College des medecins du Quebec. Information provided by physicians Harry Bard, head of neonatology at Sainte-Justine Hospital, Marie-Chantale Le Monnier of the obstetrics department at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, and Jean-Pierre Chiasson, medical director of the Clinique du Nouveau depart.

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