How does alcohol affect pregnancy?

Alcohol can have negative effects on your own health, but it can also lead to complications during pregnancy and even have a lasting impact on the child. If you’re trying for a baby or are already pregnant, you should stay clear of alcohol to ensure both you and your baby are safe. In this article, we’ll highlight the risks of consuming alcohol in pregnancy as well as provide you with some tips on how to drink less.

Here’s some of the main ways in which alcohol can impact you and your baby if you continue to drink whilst pregnant:

1. It affects the baby’s development

When you drink alcohol, it passes from your blood to the placenta and then to your baby. So, what you put inside your body will also reach your unborn child. Alcohol can then impact the baby’s development whilst it grows inside you, potentially interfering with its brain, spinal structure, body parts and critical organs. 

2. It can cause birth defects

Common birth defects alcohol can lead to include noticeable facial defects (such as thin upper lips, narrow eyes and an underdeveloped jaw), hearing loss and problems with vision.

3. It can lead to miscarriage

Miscarriage is the loss of a pregancy during the first 23 weeks. Studies have indicated that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can increase the likelihood of miscarriage by about 19% (WebMD). A common sign of a miscarriage is vaginal bleeding and if you experience this during your preganncy, you should contact your GP right away.

4. It can lead to premature birth

Premature birth is when a baby is born early and before 37 weeks of the pregnancy have passed.If a baby is born too early, it can lead to health problems at the time of birth and later in the child’s life.

5. Your baby may have a low birthweight

In the UK, a baby weighing less than 5.5lbs after 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered to have a low birth weight. There is evidence to suggest that consuming alcohol can increase the risk of a decreased infant birth weight which can lead to other complications (as the baby’s body isn’t as strong as it should be).

6. The child may develop behavioural problems and learning difficulties

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to mental and physical problems for the baby, this is referred to as foetal alcohol syndrome. The issues caused by this can vary from baby to baby but common symptoms include speech and language delays, poor memory, hyperactive behaviour and poor coordination. 

You can find out more about foetal alcohol syndrome here.

Aside from the health complications alcohol can have for your baby, there are other health issues that you can develop, such as artery disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Whilst you should certainly give up alcohol whilst pregnant to keep the baby safe, you should also consider drinking less for the health benefits it has for you.

Is any amount of alcohol safe during pregnancy?

There is still uncertainty around whether any amount of alcohol is completely safe to consume if you’re pregnant and there is no known ‘safe limit’. It’s for this reason that if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, you should avoid drinking alcohol to minimise the risk.

How early can alcohol affect pregnancy? 

It is still unknown exactly when alcohol could affect pregnancy but even people who are trying for a baby are advised to refrain from drinking. Some studies indicate that consuming alcohol in the first few weeks of pregnancy could harm the development of the foetus but there are other studies that contradict this. 

That said, it is in the early weeks of pregnancy (the embryonic stage) that the foetus’s organs (such as the heart), central nervous system and body parts (such as the arms and legs) start to develop. This means that the first few weeks of pregnancy is a critical period for the development of the foetus. It’s therefore best not to drink any alcohol, even at the start of pregnancy.

Your drinking pattern could also have an impact on how early alcohol affects pregnancy. For example, someone who drinks regularly and more than the recommended daily amount could be more likely to suffer complications during their pregnancy than those who have the odd glass of wine (though this is also best to avoid). 

How can I avoid alcohol during pregnancy?

If you’re used to drinking regularly or struggle with alcohol misuse, the idea of avoiding alcohol for at least 9 months may be daunting. But don’t worry, avoiding alcohol whilst pregnant may be easier than you think; some women even go off of the taste of alcohol early in their pregnancy! That said, there will still be many people who struggle with living an alcohol-free lifestyle. Here are some tips that can help you through the process:

1. Get creative with non-alcoholic alternatives

The idea of bland soft drinks for a long period of time isn’t all that fun. However, alcohol-free versions of cocktails can be just as delicious! From trying out mocktails at your favourite restaurants to experimenting with flavours and creating your own, alcohol-free beverages are by no means boring.

Alternatively, you can find plenty of non-alcoholic versions of drinks such as wine and beer in most supermarkets, pubs and restaurants. These are designed to replicate the taste of the ‘real deal’ but do not contain alcohol, making them perfectly safe for those who are pregnant to enjoy. 

2. Get support

Eventually your family and friends are bound to find out that you’re pregnant but you should consider letting loved ones know that you’re trying to avoid alcohol early on. You don’t have to tell them that you’re trying for a baby or that you’re in the early stages of your pregnancy (unless you’re ready to share this news) but if they’re aware that you’re going alcohol-free, they’ll be able to support you. 

Aside from family and friends, there’s plenty of other support out there. From groups designed for expectant mothers to professional health advisors and coaches (such as those here at LiveWell Dorset), you’ll never have to worry about battling sobriety alone.

3. Switch up your routine and avoid triggering situations

Trying new things could help you to keep your mind off of drinking. Avoiding the places you’re usually tempted to drink at will also make saying no to alcohol that bit easier. For example, if you’re used to spending your Friday night at your local pub, why not go to the cinema with a friend or try out a yoga class instead? There are so many ways you can spend your free time and you may even discover a new hobby!

Looking to keep fit whilst pregnant? Everyone can benefit from being active, find out how you can exercise during pregnancy here

4. If you’re going a party, bring your own non-alcoholic drink

Be prepared by bringing your own non-alcoholic drinks with you when you head out. Pubs and restaurants will be able to cater for you but if you’re going to a friend’s house or any other party, there may not be many alcohol-free options available there.

5. Find new ways to relax

A common reason for drinking is to ‘take the edge off’, especially if you experience a mental health issue such as anxiety. There are, however, plenty of healthy ways to relax yourself. You could practise some new breathing techniques, try your hand at meditation and yoga or listen to soothing music. When you find something that works for you, you can look to do this instead of reaching for a drink. 

6. Remind yourself why you’re not drinking

Changing your lifestyle for pregnancy isn’t easy, but you should remember why you’re doing this; it’s for the health of you and your baby.

Final thoughts

Babies are unable to process alcohol in the same way as adults and exposing a foetus to alcohol can have a serious impact on their development and lead to complications during birth. Whilst it may be unclear if a very small amount of alcohol can disrupt the development of a foetus or when alcohol begins to impact the pregnancy, evidence suggests that alcohol misuse can lead to issues such as miscarriage and premature birth. Therefore, it is strongly advised that you refrain from drinking alcohol in any capacity to stay on the safe side.

If you’re thinking of trying for a baby or you’re pregnant and you’re struggling with alcohol misuse, we’re here to help. We offer advice and support for residents of Dorset and will be there to guide you as you on your journey to stop drinking. Register to our services today or  contact us for more information - we’d love to speak with you!


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