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Dangers of Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy

When a woman uses drugs during pregnancy, it can result in negative health effects for both her and her baby–and alcohol is no exception. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) and several other birth defects.

Using alcohol during pregnancy is the leading preventable cause of developmental disabilities. Through medical and other types of records, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified FAS in 1 of every 1,000 live births throughout certain areas of the United States.1 Also, through in-person assessment of school-aged children, studies report that 6 to 9 out of 1,000 children has FAS.2, 3

If you are addicted to alcohol and you are pregnant, or you are thinking about getting pregnant, it is not too late to get help. Continue reading to learn about risks of drinking while pregnant and helpful treatment options if you’re struggling with alcohol use.

Facts About Alcohol and Pregnancy

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is more common than you may think. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), almost 10 percent of pregnant women reported drinking alcohol in the previous month.4 And almost 5 percent of pregnant women reported binge drinking in the previous month (binge drinking is defined as consuming 4 or more drinks per occasion).4

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is associated with high health care costs. The United States spends an estimated $5.5 billion dollars in health care and related costs related to drinking during pregnancy every year.5

According to the CDC, the cost to care for one individual with fetal alcohol syndrome (not including other FASDs) was estimated at $2 million (2002).6 It is also estimated that the annual cost to care for those in the U.S. with FAS is over $4 billion.6 Those with disabilities, such as profound intellectual disability, experience higher costs.6 

Many women drink alcohol while they are sexually active and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy.Additionally, over half of the pregnancies in the United States are unintended. An unintended pregnancy is either unplanned or planned but not monitored. Women sometimes continue drinking through the beginning of their pregnancy before discovering they are pregnant.8

When a woman wants to get pregnant, she will usually stop taking birth control, yet according to a report by the CDC, 3 in 4 women reported that they still drank alcohol after discontinuing their birth control method. The majority of women do not know they are pregnant until they are 4–6 weeks pregnant, meaning their baby could be exposed to alcohol during this critical stage of development.8

Pregnant women are typically motivated to change their drinking behaviors to ensure that their child is born healthy. One survey found that 87% of women who drank prior to becoming pregnant quit during pregnancy, 6.6% reduced the amount they drank, and about 6.4% reported not changing the amount they drank.9

Effects of Alcohol on the Mother

Alcohol consumption among women of childbearing age in the United States is a public health issue. When a woman drinks during her pregnancy, she increases the risk of harming her unborn baby as well as her own body.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, any amount of drinking during pregnancy is considered at-risk alcohol use. In consensus with this recommendation, the U.S. Surgeon General advises that pregnant women should not drink alcohol during pregnancy.10 Excessive alcohol consumption is a risk factor for miscarriage due to damage to the developing cells of the baby.

Aside from miscarriage risk, drinking alcohol while pregnant is associated with negative health outcomes for the mother that include maternal, psychosocial, and physical risks for both mother and developing fetus.5, 10

Physical Risks of Drinking While Pregnant

  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) which, depending on the infection, may harm the pregnancy.
  • Injuries, such as falls, which may lead to miscarriage.
  • Seizures.
  • Malnutrition.
  • Cancer of the breast, liver, mouth, and esophagus.

Psychosocial Risks of Drinking While Pregnant

  • Conflicts with a spouse or partner.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Child neglect or abuse.
  • Domestic violence.
  • Driving under the influence.

For women who want to get pregnant, alcohol misuse can also threaten fertility. If you or a loved one is currently pregnant or hoping to get pregnant and is abusing alcohol, it is important to talk to your doctor immediately. Your doctor can help you take the steps to reduce the possibility that your child is further exposed to alcohol in utero.

Effects of Alcohol on a Developing Fetus

Alcohol crosses the placenta and results in the fetus receiving nearly equal the concentration of alcohol as the mother.11 In addition, fetal metabolism of alcohol occurs more slowly than it does in an adult—the result being that fetal blood alcohol levels (BAC) can become more elevated than their mother’s BAC. They can also persist in that manner for a longer period of time.12

Excess alcohol consumption can abruptly result in miscarriage. For many, however, the risks don’t end there. A developing baby, carried to term after in utero exposure to alcohol, is subject to several negative effects described below.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

When a fetus is exposed to alcohol, it can disrupt its development and increase the risk of developing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). FASDs is the umbrella term for a range of disorders caused by fetal alcohol exposure. FASDs include:13

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).
  • Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS).
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND).
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD).

FASDs are preventable if the mother does not drink during pregnancy.

The CDC estimates that up to 1 in 20 school children living in the United States may have FASDs.12 When a child is born with FASDs they can experience a range of issues, including:12

  • Low birth weight.
  • Intrauterine growth retardation.
  • Problems with vital organs like the heart and kidneys.
  • Damage to the brain.

These physical issues can manifest as behavioral and intellectual disabilities as the child grows up and progresses through certain developmental milestones.

Intellectual Problems

  • Lower IQ.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Attention problems.
  • Learning disabilities.
  • Impaired judgment and reasoning skills.

These types of disabilities can create lifelong problems for an individual. A person born with FASDs may face broader challenges for the rest of their life.

Social Problems

  • Problems with social interactions.
  • Increased risk of using substances such as drugs and alcohol.
  • Difficulties keeping a job.
  • Problems with the law.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is one of the most severe types of FASDs. FAS presents with specific facial abnormalities, including:13

  • Narrow eye openings.
  • Smooth area between lip and the nose.
  • Thin upper lip.

In addition to facial dysmorphology, other signs of fetal alcohol syndrome also include:

  • Central nervous system (CNS) abnormalities, e.g., a small head circumference and/or CNS dysfunction.
  • Growth deficiencies either in utero or post-natal.

Research shows that a few factors play a major role in how severe the effects of alcohol are on a developing fetus. These risk factors include:13

  • Amount: the number of drinks a pregnant woman has per occasion.
  • Rate: how often a woman drinks.
  • Timing: when the mother drinks. (When considering distinct points in time throughout fetal development that drinking occurs, the timing of alcohol use could impact development of a specific brain region or physical feature.)

In addition to how often a woman drinks and how much she drinks alcohol while pregnant, other factors may affect the risk of a child being born with FASDs. These risk factors include:13, 14, 15

  • Diet.
  • History of multiple pregnancies.
  • Low body mass index (BMI).
  • Whether the mother smokes cigarettes and/or marijuana.
  • Older age.
  • Being in a family of heavy drinkers.
  • Inadequate prenatal care.
  • Social isolation.
  • Exposure to high levels of stress.
  • Genetics.
  • Poverty.
  • Homelessness.
  • Substance abuse by one’s partner.

Getting into addiction treatment can help you learn healthy ways to address some of these risk factors.

Women who are addicted to alcohol may choose alcohol over other things, such as eating a healthy diet during her pregnancy. In fact, many individuals addicted to alcohol are deficient in a number of essential nutrients—some of which may be crucial to a developing fetus.16 This may also make her more prone to becoming hypoglycemic or nutrient-deficient.Given that a mother’s eating habits during pregnancy can affect the severity of fetal alcohol impairment, it is important to address nutrition, in addition to all aspects of your health, during alcohol addiction treatment.

Quitting Alcohol While Pregnant

If a pregnant woman attempts to withdraw from alcohol without medical help, she can place herself and her baby at risk. Women who are dependent on alcohol may need specialized counseling and medical supervision while they withdraw.

Accordingly, treatment should be managed by doctors and nurses who are experienced in treating pregnant women with substance use disorders (SUDs). Depending on a woman’s level of alcohol use, her doctor may recommend specialized inpatient detoxification treatment or outpatient treatment.

Inpatient detoxification may be recommended if a pregnant woman is:15

  • Physiologically dependent on alcohol.
  • Drinking 5 days a week or more.
  • Actively drinking.
  • At risk for alcohol withdrawal, which can be dangerous to both the mother and baby.

Withdrawing from alcohol during pregnancy is a threat to the brain of a developing fetus. One potential damaging effect is that withdrawal can activate the brain’s NMDA receptor. NMDA plays a major role in brain development, learning, and memory.17 When this receptor is activated excessively, which occurs during withdrawal, it can cause neuronal cell death in the baby.18

Newborns can experience withdrawal after birth if their mothers have used alcohol or other substances during pregnancy. Not every baby born to a mother who used alcohol will experience withdrawal, and researchers are still examining why this is the case. However, many newborns who were exposed to alcohol in utero will experience symptoms that are mild or severe as they adjust to life outside the womb.

Signs of withdrawal in an infant include:19

  • Hyperactivity.
  • Crying.
  • Irritability.
  • Trouble with feeding.
  • Tremors.
  • Seizures.
  • Poor sleeping patterns.
  • Hyperphagia (increased appetite).
  • Diaphoresis (sweating).

Medical providers will assess a newborn’s withdrawal symptoms after birth to make an appropriate diagnosis. In some cases, your baby may need medication and/or frequent check-ups to help manage their withdrawal symptoms.

After the baby is born, many women who stopped drinking alcohol during pregnancy may begin to drink again. If this happens, it is important to tell your doctor during your next follow-up visit. Your doctor may recommend inpatient or outpatient treatment to help you resolve your addiction issues. Getting help to become alcohol-free postpartum could significantly impact not only your health, but the health and well-being of your entire family.

Treatment for Women Who Are Pregnant

Inpatient rehab programs usually last 30 days to 90 days and individuals are required to live at the facility for the duration of the program. Inpatient programming will provide a combination of:

Depending on the facility, inpatient programming may offer other amenities, such as individualized case management services, as well as postpartum support. Some treatment centers, such as those offering dual diagnosis treatment, will be able to effectively address any concurrent mental health issues that may be present, such as mood, anxiety, thought, and affective disorders.

Outpatient rehab programs offer a pregnant woman the flexibility of living at home while she receives care. In many cases, outpatient programs are less expensive than inpatient programs. Individuals who receive treatment at an outpatient program will often attend group addiction therapy for several hours each week.

Before considering going through withdrawal, detox, and/or rehab, it is best to first talk to your doctor about your current alcohol use. Your doctor can complete an assessment and direct you to the proper resources.

If you or a loved one is looking for treatment or struggling with alcohol use, we are here to help. American Addiction Centers’ caring admissions navigators are available 24/7 to answer your questions and help you find a treatment center that’s right for you, so give us a call today for free at or get a text to start your recovery journey.

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