What to Know About Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy

Research shows more children are affected by fetal alcohol disorders than previously thought. Here's what that means for alcohol consumption while pregnant and trying to conceive. 

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While there are doctors on both sides of the debate, by and large the medical community has long discouraged the consumption of alcohol by pregnant women and even those trying to conceive. Despite feverishly waving the red flag, a new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that up to one in 20 kids in the United States fall on the spectrum of fetal alcohol disorders.

This number lands in stark contrast to previous research which estimated that one in 100 children fell on the spectrum of disorders linked to maternal alcohol consumption.

Fetal alcohol disorders can result in physical and behavioral problems, as well as difficulty learning.

Although these dangers have been widely publicized, the message relaying the true cost of drinking while pregnant (and trying to conceive) may have experienced a disconnect.

"We need to offer caring and compassionate encouragement to women to adopt healthy behaviors at all times, but especially when they are planning to have a baby," says Dr. Diana Ramos, OB/GYN, Co-Chair of the National Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative (PCHHC). "In terms of alcohol, this includes no binge drinking. Many women may be surprised to learn that their drinking exceeds a safe level of alcohol consumption. They may live or associate with others who drink similar amounts of alcohol and consider their alcohol use as 'normal.' Offering compassionate education, exploring practical strategies to reduce use, and requesting a follow-up appointment (with their OB/GYN) is a successful strategy for many women who are not physically or psychologically dependent on alcohol."

For the record, the term "binge drinking" is likely not as extreme as one might think.

According to a 2015 study published in Pediatrics, binge drinking is defined as "a pattern of drinking that raises a person's blood alcohol concentration to 0.08% or greater." This was originally applied to what was considered five or more "standard" drinks. A standard drink is typically the amount of alcohol found in a 5 oz. serving of wine or 12 ounces of beer. However, in 2004 the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism changed the binge drinking definition for women to "the ingestion of four or more drinks per occasion."

"With 50% of pregnancies being unplanned it's easy to see how a woman unknowingly and innocently can drink alcohol in the early developmental stages of a growing fetus," says Dr. Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN and women's health expert at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "Unlike autism, fetal alcohol syndrome is 100% preventable. I would definitely advise women who are not on birth control to be mindful of alcohol, especially excessive consumption, after ovulation up until the next period. I also tell women to start taking a prenatal vitamin since it's well-known the value of taking folic acid months before conceiving on reducing spinal defects and autism."

Dr. Ramos stresses that alcohol consumption isn't safe at any point during pregnancy, no matter whether you consider yourself in the early stages or the home stretch.

"Alcohol can affect a fetus at any stage of pregnancy, and the learning defects and behavioral problems that result from prenatal alcohol exposure are lifelong," she emphasizes. "In early pregnancy during early organ development, and many times before a woman realizes she's pregnant, the baby may be particularly vulnerable to maternal binge or heavy alcohol use. Even moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy may affect emotional and behavior problems in a child."

The moral of the story? If you're trying to conceive or are already pregnant, avoid alcohol. That mocktail may not feel as indulgent as a glass of wine, but your baby's health and well-being isn't worth the risk.