• Sharebar
advertisement: 
Smoking, Alcohol, And Pregnancy

Alcohol During Pregnancy

Last modified: 
24/04/2012 - 15:10

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

People drink alcohol for a variety of reasons-social pressure, as a means of reducing stress and emotional upset, addiction-and these reasons don't go away when a woman becomes pregnant. So even though the knowledge about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy has increased in recent years, the use of alcohol among pregnant women is still high.

From 1991-1995, the rate of pregnant women who reported any drinking during the previous month increased from 12.4% to 16.3%; four times more pregnant women reported frequent drinking in 1995 (3.5%) than in 1991 (0.8%). In this study, "frequent drinking" was defined as having 7 or more drinks per week or 5 or more drinks on a single occasion (also known as "binge drinking") during the month prior to the interview.

In 1999 and 2000, the numbers were slightly lower. In the 18-25 age group, 10.1% of pregnant women reported past-moth use of alcohol (4.8% of which reported binge drinking). In the 26-44 age group, 14.0% reported drinking (3.1% reported binge drinking).

How Does Drinking Alcohol Affect A Woman's Health?

When we take an alcoholic drink, most of the alcohol is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream through the walls of the stomach and intestine. Because it is absorbed directly, the effects of alcohol can be felt very quickly. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it slows the activity of the nervous system. In addition to impairing the thought process, this means that the use of alcohol may contribute to a "depressed" emotional state.

Heavy, regular drinking has also been associated with many diseases and conditions that can lead to death:

  • Cirrhosis of the liver (a disease in which the cells of the organ are irreversibly damaged)
  • Kidney failure
  • Brain damage (alcohol kills brain cells)
  • Cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach

Regular moderate to heavy drinking can also cause stomach ulcers and inflammation of the pancreas, and is associated with pneumonia. Regular heavy drinking is associated with a range of social problems such as violence in marriage, child neglect, debts, separation and divorce, and problems at work. Alcohol is also a major contributor to fatal traffic accidents.

Need To Know:

The US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have published guidelines that recommend drinking in moderation, for those who choose to drink at all. Moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day for women (two drinks per day for men).

One drink equals:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof (40%) distilled spirits (whisky, vodka, gin, etc)

How Quickly Does The Body Get Rid Of Alcohol?

It can take over an hour for the body to rid itself of the alcohol contained in one drink. The elimination process of alcohol is therefore quite slow, but eventually most of the alcohol is removed from the liver. Some finally passes out through the urine. If drinking is heavy and habitual, this process can damage the liver. Once excessive drinking has damaged the liver, this process slows down even further; alcohol stays in the bloodstream even longer.

Nice To Know:

The popular belief that dinking coffee will help a person "sober up" is a myth-only time and a properly functioning liver can get rid of the alcohol in a person's bloodstream.

What Causes Hangovers?

Dehydration is one of the factors that cause hangovers. Alcohol tends to make water move out of body cells and accumulate in the blood. This means the alcohol has what is called a "diuretic effect"; that is, it causes increased urination and an overall loss of water from the body. The most common symptoms of dehydration are headache and dryness in the skin. Impurities in drinks and colorants may also contribute to the "hangover" and "headache" effects of too much alcohol.

How Does A Mother's Drinking Affect Her Unborn Baby?

Every time a pregnant woman has a drink her unborn child has one, too. Alcohol, like carbon monoxide from cigarettes, passes easily through the placenta from the mother's bloodstream into her baby's blood. The best known effect of heavy drinking during pregnancy is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

FAS is characterized by particular physical and mental/neurological defects-abnormal facial features, reduced or slowed physical growth, a small head, and slowed intellectual/behavioral development. The latter defects are thought to be related to reduced or slowed development of the brain itself. Damage to the nervous system-the brain, spinal cord, etc.-can occur in the first few weeks of pregnancy, before a woman even knows she is pregnant.

Not all babies exposed to alcohol before birth are born with FAS. FAS is typically diagnosed only when the facial abnormalities and reduced growth are present-the intellectual and behavioral defects may not be immediately apparent.

The term "Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder" (ARND) is used to describe impairments of the nervous system-brain, spinal cord, or other nerves-that can be linked to alcohol consumption during pregnancy. These impairments may include mental retardation, poor motor skills or hand-eye coordination, severe behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and attention deficit, among others. The term "Alcohol-Related Birth Defects" (ARBD) describes physical or functional defects of the skeleton and other major organ systems.

The effects of alcohol do not end in infancy. The physical and mental defects described above are typically lifelong impairments. By drinking during pregnancy, a woman risks sentencing her child to a lifetime of difficulty.

Drinking during pregnancy is also associated with higher rates of miscarriage, premature birth, complications during birth, and low birthweight. Low birthweight babies have a higher risk of death at birth and in the weeks soon after. They are also at higher risk for serious complications and illness, including breathing disorders, as newborns. They may require specialized medical care in a newborn intensive care unit (NICU).

FAS, ARND and ARBD affect more newborns every year than Down's syndrome, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome combined. But they are 100% preventable. If she does not drink any alcohol during pregnancy, a woman can be certain that her baby will not have fetal alcohol syndrome or other alcohol-related health problems.

How Much Is It Safe To Drink During Pregnancy?

Because so many factors contribute to the development of the unborn baby, it is impossible to determine a "safe" level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Therefore, most health care professionals recommend that women stop drinking alcohol during pregnancy. In fact, since much of the damage associated with alcohol can occur very early in pregnancy-before a woman may know she is pregnant-a woman who is trying to conceive should not drink, either.

Need To Know:

Alcohol can also be passed to an infant in breast milk. If you choose drink while you are breastfeeding, the following guidelines may reduce the risk of passing alcohol to the baby.

  • Drink no more than one serving (12 oz. of beer, 5 oz. of wine, 1.5 oz. of distilled liquor) per day
  • Wait 2 hours to resume nursing
  • If you intend to have more than one drink, you should pump and store milk ahead of time. Although it is likely that alcohol will no longer be expressed in milk if you no longer feel "tipsy", you should wait about 2 hours per drink before nursing again. The stored milk will allow you to bottle feed the baby while your body gets rid of the alcohol in your bloodstream. If your breasts feel uncomfortably full during this time, you should pump and dispose of the milk.
advertisement: 
 
advertisement: 
Rate This Article: 
Average: 2.7 (7 votes)
 

From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.