Fertility and pregnancy * Babies and children

Drinking when pregnant

Drinking and pregnancy Is it safe?

You're three months pregnant and barely showing a bump, when someone pours you half a glass of wine at the restaurant. Why deny yourself?

But look at it this way: If you drink when pregnant, then the unborn baby drinks too. Alcohol quickly enters your bloodstream and crosses into that of the baby via the placenta. But babies are slower at processing alcohol than adults, and so are exposed to its effects for longer.

In view of September 9th, which is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Awareness Day, we've compiled a guide to pregnancy and alcohol, to help you make an informed decision.

Heavy drinking

There is no doubt that heavy drinking or binge drinking can permanently damage a baby's health at all stages of pregnancy.

Heavy drinking is six or more units of alcohol a day, while drinking five or more units in one sitting is considered binge drinking.

Heavy drinking during pregnancy puts the baby at risk of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), an umbrella term used to describe a number of health conditions, ranging from mild to severe, which are all linked to alcohol consumption during pregnancy. These include facial abnormalities, restricted growth and development and learning and behavioural difficulties.

Heavy drinking also increases the risk of having a miscarriage or premature birth and having a stillborn baby.

Light drinking

When it comes to moderate or light drinking during pregnancy, there is much debate about how much alcohol a pregnant woman can consume without risking the health of her baby, and no clear answer.

The Department of Health currently advises pregnant women to avoid drinking alcohol, but also says that if a woman chooses to drink, they should not drink more than one to two units of alcohol once a week, and should not get drunk.

The UK health watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), advises women in the first three months of pregnancy to avoid alcohol altogether, due to an increased risk of miscarriage.

Specifically, NICE states:

  • Pregnant women and women planning a pregnancy should be advised to avoid drinking in the first three months of pregnancy if possible because it may be associated with an increased risk of miscarriage.

  • If women choose to drink alcohol during pregnancy they should be advised to drink no more than two UK units once or twice a week... Although there is uncertainty regarding a safe level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy, at this low level there is no evidence of harm to the unborn baby.

However, this does not mean that moderate or light drinking during pregnancy is safe, or that the baby is safe from the effects of alcohol after the first three months of pregnancy. It's just that - at this point in time - scientists are unsure about the effects small quantities of alcohol can have on an unborn baby.

What's in a unit?

One UK unit of alcohol is 8g or 10ml of pure alcohol (ethanol). This is the equivalent to:

  • Half a pint of ordinary strength lager, beer or cider (3.5% alcohol by volume/ABV)
  • One standard measure (25ml) of spirits, such as gin, vodka, whisky or rum (40% ABV)
  • Half a standard glass (175ml) of wine (11.5% ABV)

Women who are pregnant therefore need to keep an eye on the strength of their drink, the size of their glass and how full the glass actually is, if they decide to have a drink.

It's also worthwhile remembering that pubs often sell spirits as doubles, wine in large glasses, and friends don't use measures when pouring drinks.

In the end, if you want to be absolutely sure your baby is not affected in any way by alcohol, the only thing to do is not to drink at all.

This article was published on Tue 6 September 2011



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