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Is it okay to drink alcohol while pregnant?

September 30, 2015

A new report from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that one in every 10 pregnant women has consumed alcohol within the last 30 days.

If you’re tempted to think, “What’s the big deal?” you aren’t alone.

In my experience in playgroups, Moms’ groups and the carpool line, I’ve noticed that many women believe that moderate drinking during pregnancy is safe. In fact, it’s often celebrated.

And if you’re paying attention to health news online, you have likely seen plenty of articles with a headline that goes something like this: “Study shows moderate alcohol use safe in pregnancy.”

Is alcohol safe during pregnancy?

No matter what misleading information you may have seen or heard, let’s clear up any misconceptions.

There is no safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.

There is no safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy.

There is no safe type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.

There are few things in medicine that we can say with certainty, but this is one area where doctors and experts in a variety of fields are in agreement: drinking alcohol during pregnancy places a fetus at unnecessary risk.

Here’s why:

When a mother consumes alcohol, the alcohol crosses the placenta into the baby’s bloodstream. Whether it’s just one glass of wine or several shots of tequila, the same amount of alcohol that reaches the mother also reaches the baby.

Alcohol is a known teratogen, meaning that it causes birth defects and impairs normal prenatal development, especially the development of a baby’s brain. A mother’s alcohol consumption can result in a variety of problems known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). These disorders range in severity and presentation, but encompass a variety of physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders at every age

Here are some of the issues that a child may face over the course of their life as a result of alcohol consumption during pregnancy:

Infants: Low birth weight, poor feeding, irritability, poor sleep/wake cycles, sensitivity to light, sound, touch, motor delays, speech delays, facial abnormalities, chronic ear infections

Toddlers: hyperactivity, poor memory, no sense of fear, excessive need for physical contact, stunted growth, delayed speech and motor development

Children: short attention span, poor coordination, impaired ability in complex problem solving, judgment and abstract thinking, poor academic performance, deficient in social interactions, intellectual disabilities

Teenagers: poor impulse control, disordered behavior, can’t distinguish between public and private behaviors

According to the Institute of Medicine, of all the known substances of abuse (including marijuana, cocaine and heroin), alcohol does the most damage to a baby’s developing brain.

Don’t believe everything you read (or hear)

The difficult part of convincing people that alcohol is dangerous for pregnant mothers is that it doesn’t appear as a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Have you ever heard someone say, “Well, my mom drank a glass of wine when she was pregnant and I turned out fine”?

There are some women who drink a lot and their children suffer minor consequences, and there are some who drink a small amount and the consequences the child suffers are severe. We don’t yet understand all of the genetic and environmental variables that determine which children will be dramatically and irreversibly affected and which will have minor effects.

And while you may have friends or relatives who have engaged in this risky behavior without consequences, you may also know people who are suffering severe repercussions and you aren’t aware that it is related to alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

When a child is struggling with hyperactivity, poor behavior in the classroom or is diagnosed with a learning disability or chronic ear infections, parents may not be aware of the ultimate cause (and even if it has been diagnosed as a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, they likely won’t be sharing this information with you).

Recognize that the anecdotes you hear from others aren’t truth. They are opinions, and opinions can be wrong. The best scientific evidence we have to date says unequivocally that alcohol affects the normal development of a growing baby’s brain and a child could suffer lifelong harm.

Maya Angelou once said, “I did then what I knew to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

Let’s do better for our children now that we know better.