Alcohol Use During Pregnancy: Prevalance, Dangers, and Treatment

Alcohol use by pregnant women is a growing health concern across the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 15 to 20 percent of pregnant women drink alcohol, despite the many well-known risks for the health of the child.

The statistics probably shouldn’t be surprising, since regular alcohol consumption is so deeply ingrained in our culture. Alcohol is the most commonly used recreational drug in the country. Drinking is a socially acceptable and completely legal way for adults to relax, have a good time, or cope with the stress of day-to-day life.

In most cases, an occasional drink won’t create any problems. But in general, drinking during pregnancy – even small amounts – is something to avoid completely, if at all possible.

The Risks of Drinking During Pregnancy

Drinking presents serious health risks for mothers and unborn infants. Alcohol passes through the umbilical cord to the blood and tissues of the developing baby, where it can cause problems.

Damage to the child can range from the relatively minor to the very serious. It may be temporary, and it may be life-long. It all depends on the health details of the mother, the amount and duration of the alcohol consumption, and the health status of the developing child.

Here are some of the most common effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy:

  • Premature delivery
  • Miscarriage or stillbirth
  • Problems bonding with the mother
  • Difficulty feeding
  • Small head and other abnormalities
  • Narrow eye openings and flat face
  • Stunted growth (both height and weight) during pregnancy and after
  • Behavioral and social problems
  • Trouble with concentration and memory
  • Problems with balance, movement, and coordination
  • Problems with speech
  • Learning problems that may continue into school and beyond
  • Hyperactivity
  • Poor reasoning and judgment
  • Problems with vision or hearing
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys or other organs

Children born with problems caused by alcohol may need a lot of extra attention and patience from parents and caregivers. They often need counseling or other forms of social support, such as extra help in school or job training.

As children affected by alcohol grow into adolescence and adulthood, they may have an increased risk of addiction and mental health disorders. They may have difficulty in school and may struggle to keep a job, and struggle with poverty, homelessness, and legal problems.

Drinking also presents a variety of potential problems for the mother. Drinking at moderate levels can increase the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.

Also, pregnant women who drink are more likely to develop high blood pressure, which can cause serious problems as pregnancy advances.

Alcohol consumption can weaken the body’s immune system, which means the mother may have more flu, colds, and general illnesses. Long-term immune damage can also put women at risk of more serious health problems.

How Much Alcohol is too Much?

We used to think that an occasional drink during pregnancy was safe for the mother and child, as long as drinking was kept at moderate levels. Most people also believed that it was safe to drink after the first three months of pregnancy.

We now know there is no safe level of alcohol for women during pregnancy. Any amount of alcohol is too much. We also know that the brain, body, and organs continue to develop throughout the entire pregnancy. This means that any amount of alcohol at any time during pregnancy puts both the developing child and the mother at risk.

While no amount of alcohol is the best choice for the unborn child, regular, heavy consumption is the most dangerous choice. Women who drink more than two drinks per day are at higher risk of delivering a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. Binge drinking – drinking more than five drinks on one occasion – is also extremely dangerous for the unborn child. One episode of binge drinking can damage the child, even if the mother rarely drinks otherwise.

The bottom line is this: there is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Even one or two drinks per week can cause problems for the child. It’s a myth that beer and wine are safer than other types of alcohol. All types of alcohol are dangerous for mother and child.

Drinking While Breastfeeding: The Baby Drinks, Too

Women who plan to breastfeed should understand that the alcohol they drink will end up in their breast milk, which is not good for the child. Too much alcohol can cause babies to be drowsy or weak. They may have trouble putting on weight, or they may gain an unhealthy amount of weight.

They also need to understand that after birth, the baby’s liver is still developing. An adult’s liver is fully formed and functional. It processes toxins efficiently. A baby’s liver, however, is neither fully formed nor as efficient as that of an adult. Babies metabolize alcohol much more slowly than adults, especially very young infants.

The safest choice for breastfeeding mothers is to avoid alcohol altogether. Mothers who want to have an occasional drink should keep their alcohol consumption at moderate levels. Moderate means two drinks or less at a time, not more than once a week. Breastfeeding mothers should never drink to excess or binge drink.

Mothers who do drink while breastfeeding should wait until their alcohol levels drop and are no longer present in their breast milk. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) advises that one drink can be detected in breast milk for two to three hours, while two drinks can be detected for four to five hours, and three drinks can be detected for six to eight hours.

Dangers of Drinking Before Pregnancy

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says that more than half of pregnant women used alcohol in the three months before they became pregnant. This isn’t necessarily intentional. About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and many women are unaware they are pregnant until they are four to six weeks along.

What this means, though, is that women who are trying to get pregnant should not drink. And any woman who thinks they may be pregnant should stop drinking immediately. The sooner the alcohol consumption stops, the higher the chance the baby will arrive healthy and without incident.

Treatment for Pregnant Women Must be Supportive, Compassionate, and Nonjudgmental

For pregnant women who want to quit drinking but have trouble making it stick, treatment is the best option. And the sooner they get treatment, the better the outcome for mother and child.

Unfortunately, many pregnant women face obstacles when it comes to seeking treatment. Here’s a quick list of what they experience when seeking help for problem drinking:

  • Judgment. This comes from family, society in general, and at times from health care workers themselves. Many people believe drinking during pregnancy is a form of child abuse, and are not shy about sharing their point of view.
  • Shame. Most pregnant women know they shouldn’t drink during pregnancy, and feel a great deal of embarrassment and/or self-loathing because they can’t quit, and need help getting sober.
  • Guilt. Women who drink during pregnancy hold themselves responsible for any damage they cause their child.
  • Money. Many pregnant women – especially those who are young, single, and without insurance – cannot afford the cost of rehab
  • Fear. Pregnant women may fear that if they reveal the extent of their drinking during pregnancy, their child will be taken away from them.

These obstacles are significant, it’s true. But pregnant women who need help with problem drinking shouldn’t give up hope. Treatment centers that specialize in treatment for pregnant women and new mothers are becoming more and more common with each passing year. These facilities and the people who staff them understand the needs of pregnant women. They’ll provide treatment with compassion, support, and understanding.

Safety First: Detoxification

Women who have been heavy drinkers should look for a treatment center that provides medically monitored and/or medication-assisted detoxification. It’s crucial to remember that the baby will also be detoxing, and will need round-the-clock, 24/7 monitoring until the detoxification process is complete.

After a safe detox, treatment can begin. New and pregnant mothers in rehab receive both group and individual counseling to help learn how to make better decisions and cope with the stress that comes along with being a new parent. Most treatment centers for pregnant women also include prenatal care, parenting classes, and other practical forms of assistance. At the end of treatment, each participant goes home with a detailed aftercare plan to help manage and maintain long-term sobriety. Treatment helps the mother get back on track in life, which in turn helps create a stable environment for the new or developing child. Those two things combined form the foundation of a stable, loving family – but it all starts with the decision by the mother to make a positive change, take control of her life, and enter treatment.