Drinking, Smoking, and Your Pregnancy

If you have unsafe health habits during pregnancy, your baby does too. Here's why you should stop now.

How Alcohol and Caffeine Can Impact Baby's Health

Alcohol During Pregnancy: Safe or Not?
Alcohol During Pregnancy: Safe or Not?
Woman Drinking Glass of Wine in Black and White

A glass of wine or a puff on a cigarette is a part of many women's social lives. But if you're pregnant, whatever you take into your body reaches your baby too. Smoking and drinking can hurt your baby, so it's important that you change your habits.

The best time, of course, is before you and your partner decide to start trying. A baby's brain and other organs start to develop before you even realize you're pregnant. But even if you're expecting, you can reduce the risk to your child if you kick these habits now.

Drinking for Two

When you lift your glass, make sure it's filled with grape juice, not wine. The reason? When you drink, alcohol passes through the placenta to your growing fetus. Because a developing baby's body breaks down alcohol much more slowly than an adult's, a fetus's blood alcohol level can rise much higher than its mother's and stay elevated longer. The damage can be long lasting and severe, ranging from mental retardation to heart damage.

Unfortunately, according to the National Academy of Sciences, 20 percent of women who drink alcohol continue to do so during pregnancy. And about 1 in 29 women who know that they're pregnant report dangerous levels of drinking (defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as more than seven drinks in a week or five and above on one occasion).

Does a Sip or Two of Alcohol Count?

Resist the urge to take a small sip, even for a toast, because research has shown that occasional drinking may be harmful too. A recent study at Wayne State University, in Detroit, found that women who consumed as little as one drink a week during pregnancy were about three times as likely as nondrinkers to have a child diagnosed with behavioral problems such as aggression and difficulty paying attention. Preschoolers of women who drank moderately (one to three drinks a day) sometimes fare worse. In fact, a number of studies have found that these children have an increased risk of learning problems and decreased IQ in addition to significant behavioral problems later on.

The list of potential health and developmental problems doesn't end here; drinking heavily throughout pregnancy increases your risk of having a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS, which affects about 1 in 1,000 babies in this country, is one of the most common causes of mental retardation and central nervous system problems, abnormal facial features, and, often, heart defects. Even if they're not mentally retarded, these children may have problems with learning, memory, attention, speech, and hearing, as well as severe behavioral problems.

In addition, past studies have shown that women who consume three drinks per week in their first trimester are more than twice as likely as nondrinkers to have a miscarriage.

Will Caffeine Hurt a Pregnancy?

Wondering if coffee can be dangerous during pregnancy? The experts disagree. While some studies have linked heavy caffeine consumption during pregnancy with an increased risk of miscarriage, most have found little or no risk with moderate consumption (one or two cups a day).

Until we know more about how much caffeine is completely safe in pregnancy, the wisest choice is to try to cut it out of your diet or limit your intake to 300 milligrams a day, the amount in two 8-ounce cups of coffee. If you're a tea drinker, remember that some brewed teas may contain nearly as much caffeine as coffee, although amounts vary greatly. Keep in mind that other foods and beverages -- chocolate and colas, for example -- also contain caffeine, so read labels carefully.

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