Risks of Drinking Alcohol While Pregnant

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There's a very good reason moms-to-be are advised to be teetotalers: Drinking alcohol puts a woman's pregnancy and her unborn child at risk for a number of potentially devastating outcomes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASDs), a range of physical, intellectual, and behavioral disabilities that affect a baby throughout his or her life.

No Alcohol Is Safe in Pregnancy

You may have read that a glass of wine once in a while isn't dangerous for a pregnancy, or that once a woman is in the third trimester of pregnancy any alcohol she drinks isn't likely to affect her baby because by that point the baby is fully developed. But research has shown that there's no time during pregnancy when it's safe for a woman to drink, nor is there an amount of alcohol that's safe.

For example, a 2017 from Binghamton University, State University of New York, found that any amount of exposure to alcohol during pregnancy could cause significant amounts of anxiety lasting through adolescence and into adulthood.

How Alcohol Can Affect a Developing Fetus

Drinking raises the levels of alcohol in your blood. Because you're an adult, your body has the ability to process this alcohol.

At the same time, though, the alcohol in your bloodstream passes to your fetus via the placenta. This means that the significantly smaller and still developing being will wind up with the same amount of alcohol in its blood but without the ability to process it.

What's more, alcohol can be especially detrimental to pregnancy even before a woman realizes she's expecting, according to the CDC.

Most women won't realize they're pregnant for as many as four to six weeks after they conceive. For that reason, the CDC even advises women who are trying to get pregnant to steer clear of alcohol.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders

A baby who survives being exposed to alcohol while in the womb may suffer the disabilities caused by FASD for his entire life. The health problems that can be caused by fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Behavioral issues such as aggression, hyperactivity, and antisocial behavior
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Delayed development
  • Facial abnormalities
  • Hearing loss
  • Learning disabilities
  • Low birth weight
  • Physical deformities and bone and joint problems
  • Speech impairments
  • Vision issues

Many of these symptoms and problems can be managed after birth, but there is no way to undo the damage that alcohol can cause in a developing child.

A Word From Verywell

If you're pregnant, or even trying to become pregnant (remember, you won't know you've conceived until at least a month afterward), it's better to be safe than sorry. Passing on that glass of pinot or opting for a mocktail instead of margarita will be worth it when you give birth to a healthy, happy baby.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. FASDs information for women.

  2. Rouzer SK, Cole JM, Johnson JM, Varlinskaya EI, Diaz MR. Moderate maternal alcohol exposure on gestational day 12 impacts anxiety-like behavior in offspring. Front Behav Neurosci. 2017;11:183. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00183

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and pregnancy.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basics about FASDs.

Additional Reading

By Krissi Danielsson
Krissi Danielsson, MD is a doctor of family medicine and an advocate for those who have experienced miscarriage.