What’s the Effects of Alcohol on Pregnancy? 

Laura Tilt
Laura Tilt

Laura Tilt has over 10 years of experience as a dietitian, working within the NHS and private healthcare sectors and contributing to various publications, podcasts and panels. Laura is passionate about helping people understand the relationship between what’s on their plate and what goes on inside their bodies.

The advice around the effects of alcohol on pregnancy can be confusing. Is the odd glass of wine OK, or should you abstain completely? In this article, we discuss the latest guidelines and the thinking behind them. 

Why The Concern? 

Most of us know that drinking alcohol can affect our health in various ways. But it can also impact your growing baby, as alcohol passes through the placenta and into your baby’s bloodstream. Your baby’s liver is one of the last organs to develop, which means they are unable to process alcohol in the same way that you can. 

What Are the Risks?

Alcohol can have both short-term and long- term effects on your baby, and the more you drink the greater the risks are. During the first three months of pregnancy, drinking alcohol may increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and low birth weight. 

After three months, drinking alcohol may affect your baby in other ways. Moderate and binge drinking has been linked with a range of developmental problems, known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). FASD is a term used to describe the impact on the brain and body of babies exposed to alcohol during pregnancy. FASD can lead to learning difficulties and behavioural problems, which might not become evident until childhood. 

Drinking heavily during pregnancy can result in a serious condition called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which is the severe end of the FASD spectrum. Children born with FAS have problems with their brain development and have abnormal growth and facial features that come from being exposed to alcohol. 

What’s Recommended?

In the UK, alcohol guidelines are set by the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) – the most senior government advisors on health matters. In 2016, after taking into account all of the evidence, the CMOs released new guidelines on pregnancy and drinking. They decided that the safest approach if you are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant is not to drink any alcohol. This will keep risks to your baby to a minimum. 

After years of conflicting guidelines (with some experts stating that small amounts of alcohol were OK), this advice can seem overcautious. The problem is that there aren’t many high-quality studies on how low intakes of alcohol affect a growing baby. Although the risks of are thought to be low, it’s difficult to be sure whether any amount of alcohol is ‘safe’. Therefore, the CMO’s want to provide clarity by advising that the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all. 

What If I Was Drinking Alcohol Before Knowing I Was Pregnant? 

Not all pregnancies are planned, so what happens if you were drinking alcohol without knowing you were pregnant? The CMOs’ advice is that there’s no need to worry if you drank small amounts of alcohol before knowing you were pregnant, as the risks to your baby are low. The important thing is to stop drinking now you know you are pregnant. If you need help or support with drinking, chat with your midwife or GP, who can offer help and advice, and refer you for extra support. 

What to Drink (And Do) When You’re Not Drinking 

You may find that your taste for alcohol changes during pregnancy making it easy to avoid, but social pressure and habits can make it difficult to say no. It’s worth spending some time thinking about what changes you might need to make if alcohol is something that you use to relax and socialise. Try different ways of relaxing – a warm bath, pregnancy massage, watching a film or a pregnancy yoga class might work for you. 

You might also want to think about the role of your partner, family and friends, and if they can support you by choosing not to drink when you don’t, or by making sure there are non-alcoholic drinks for you during social occasions. Happily, the range of non- alcoholic drinks has come a long way and there’s more choice than sweet soft drinks. We love the range of alt-gins, Noseccco and alcohol free beers popping up on the shelves. Try Seedlip for a range of non- alcoholic spirits that taste delicious with soda or tonic and a slice of orange peel. 

If you need help or support with drinking, chat with your midwife or GP who can offer help and advice, and refer you for extra support. 

Led by a team of maternal health experts, all women, mostly mothers, Biamother believes a healthy baby begins with a healthy mum. On the Biamother app find personalised guidance to help you eat, move and feel your best, as well as video workouts you can do at home that adapt to your changing body and needs. You can also chat one-on-one with your very own fitness coach. The app is free to download for 14 days on the Apple App Store (Google Play Store coming soon).