What happens if you drink alcohol while pregnant?

Alcohol use during pregnancy is a significant hazard to your baby. If you drank before you learned you're pregnant, your baby might already be significantly exposed to danger.
Alcohol use during pregnancy is a significant hazard to your baby. If you drank before you learned you're pregnant, your baby might already be significantly exposed to danger.

The dangers of alcohol while pregnant have been known for many years now. Alcohol exposure is considered a major preventable cause of developmental disabilities and congenital disabilities. What happens if you drink alcohol before knowing you're pregnant?

The effects of alcohol on a baby are dangerous. Alcohol crosses the placenta and causes fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). The effects of FASD are lifelong and lead to difficulties in school and employment.

Alcohol use during pregnancy is a significant hazard to your baby. But, you may have consumed liquor before knowing you were pregnant. About half of pregnancies in the US are unplanned. 

Mothers usually find out they're pregnant when the pregnancy is four to six weeks old. If you drank before you learned you're pregnant, your baby might already be significantly exposed to danger.

What should you do when you find out you're pregnant? 

  • Stop drinking immediately. 
  • Inform your obstetrician about the alcohol exposure to your baby. They'll alert the ultrasound technician to look out for any anatomical defects.
  • Inform your pediatrician at the first visit after delivery. They will plan developmental testing early to detect FASD. There is no cure for fetal alcohol exposure, but early intervention programs may benefit your child's development.

The damaging effects of alcohol on your baby persist through pregnancy. If you stop your alcohol intake at any time, it will benefit your baby. The sooner you stop, the better.

How dangerous is the alcohol you had before knowing you were pregnant? Is your baby sure to be damaged? In five countries in Europe, there are 902,180 babies born annually with alcohol exposure before birth. Of these, 69,395 (about 7%) are diagnosed with FASD. The frequency and amounts of alcohol consumption also matter. Heavy, daily drinking causes more significant damage. 

If you drink in early pregnancy, you may harm your baby. But the risk of severe damage is small if you stop promptly on learning you're pregnant. Your obstetrician and your pediatrician will monitor your baby to check for the effects of alcohol on your baby. There is no recommendation about terminating a pregnancy because of such accidental alcohol exposure.

Effects of alcohol on a baby

Alcohol in your blood passes to your baby through the placenta and umbilical cord. It reaches both your baby and the amniotic fluid inside your womb. Since your baby drinks amniotic fluid, alcohol continues to exert its dangerous effect for a long time. 

Alcohol affects your baby's growth, facial features, and brain. Alcohol exposure can also cause your baby to have heart, bone, or kidney defects. The most dangerous effects are on the growing brain. 

Babies exposed to alcohol during pregnancy have smaller brains. All parts of the brain are affected. More significant decreases of brain volume are associated with worse developmental and behavioral outcomes.

The fetal spectrum disorder (FASD)

Earlier, it was called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FASD, the current term, is a collection of congenital disabilities and developmental disabilities. These are seen in babies exposed to alcohol in the womb (called prenatal alcohol exposure, PAE).

The physical features of FASD:

  • Eyes small in the horizontal axis
  • Smooth philtrum (the vertical ridges between the nose and upper lip)
  • Thin upper lip 
  • Small head (microcephaly)
  • Cleft palate 
  • Low birth weight and length

The effects on development and behavior are probably more concerning:

  • Attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD)
  • Behavioral problems
  • Learning disorders, subtle or severe
  • Poor social interaction skills and peer relationships
  • Reduced memory, problem-solving, and verbal skills
  • School difficulties, particularly with mathematics

Safe limits of alcohol in pregnancy

There are no safe limits. Any alcohol you drink passes through the placenta and reaches your baby. You should stop alcohol consumption completely when you decide to get pregnant or as soon as you discover an unplanned pregnancy. All types of alcohol are dangerous, including beer and wines. Even low levels of alcohol use can increase the danger of brain damage and FASD.

There is no safe time to drink alcohol, either. Alcohol exposure can affect your baby at any stage of pregnancy. Alcohol exposure in the first three months can cause abnormal facial features in your baby. Alcohol can cause miscarriages and stillbirths, too.

Some years ago, a report found that one in nine (11.5%) pregnant women consume alcohol. About a third of these also indulge in binge drinking. It's no surprise, then, that 1.1% to 5% of first-grade students were found to have FASD. 

It is essential to realize that:

  • The congenital disabilities and developmental disabilities of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are entirely preventable.
  • These defects and disabilities are lifelong. There is no treatment to reverse them.
  • You must stop alcohol intake completely when you are planning a pregnancy. 
  • There is no safe amount, type, or timing of alcohol during pregnancy. 

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Medically Reviewed on 1/7/2022
References
SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Alcohol Use in Pregnancy."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Basics about FASDs."

Journal of the American Medical Association: "Screening and Behavioral Counseling Interventions to Reduce Unhealthy Alcohol Use in Adolescents and Adults: US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement."

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: "Consumption of Alcohol Beverages and Binge Drinking Among Pregnant Women Aged 18–44 Years — United States, 2015–2017."

Nutrients: "Alcohol's Impact on the Fetus."

Pediatrics: "Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders."