Most pregnant women will receive confusing and conflicted advice about drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
While some people – even medical professionals – may say it’s ok to have one occasional drink, others will see it as an unnecessary risk.
Ministry of Health guidelines from 2010 advises that “there is no known safe level of alcohol use at any stage of pregnancy. This includes the time around conception”.
In 2001, government guidelines in Australia changed to tell pregnant women they could drink small quantities of alcohol – less than six standard drinks per week, or less than two drinks a day, but in 2009 their guidelines changed again to recommend abstinence.
Researchers from the University of Newcastle found pregnant women were less likely to comply with guidelines for abstinence than to comply with guidelines for low alcohol intake.
Most women know it is unlikely that a single alcoholic beverage will cause birth defects in an unborn child, and researchers found women are likely to continue drinking alcohol in small quantities if they drank regularly before becoming pregnant.
But what are pregnant women risking if they drink?
Alcohol risk #1: Baby has a high blood alcohol level
Alcohol quickly travels through a woman’s bloodstream, crosses the placenta, and reaches the unborn baby, who breaks down alcohol more slowly than an adult and may end up with higher levels of blood alcohol than the mother.
There is no safe level of alcohol during pregnancy because an individual has different variations in metabolism.
Alcohol risk #2: Research shows a range of problems
Drinking endangers your growing baby in a number of ways: It increases the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. As little as one drink a day can raise the odds for low birth weight and raise your child’s risk for problems with learning, speech, attention span, language, and hyperactivity. Some research has shown that expectant mums who have as little as one drink a week are more likely than nondrinkers to have children who later exhibit aggressive and delinquent behaviour.
Alcohol risk #3: Foetal alcohol syndrome
In America, approximately 40,000 babies are born with some type of alcohol related deformities each year. It affects an estimated one to two in every 1,000 births in the country. Foetal alcohol syndrome or FAS occurs, when the foetus is exposed to high levels of alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol passes the placenta in the same concentration present in the maternal bloodstream. When this occurs, the foetus cannot remove the breakdown products of alcohol from their body. This greatly affects the baby’s tissues and organs. It is particularly damaging to the brain and spinal cord cells.
Foetal alcohol syndrome does not only cause a single birth defect but a range of alcohol effects on the baby. It may range from mild to severe, and it is collectively called as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders or FASD. Infants with the disorder may have a characteristic facial deformity. This includes small eyes, a thin upper lip and an upturned nose. Heart defects, hearing and vision difficulties, and growth problems may also occur. Babies exposed to high levels of alcohol, may also have birth defects that involve parts of the body such as the bones and the urinary tract. It can also affect cognitive development that may result to mental retardation, delayed development and various abnormal behaviours like hyperactivity, short attention span, anxiety problems and poor impulse control.
If you had a drink or two before you knew you were pregnant, don’t panic. It’s not likely that it harmed your baby. The most important thing to focus on is staying as healthy as you can from now on and most medical guidelines suggest that means swearing off alcohol for the rest of your pregnancy.