Updated 04 December 2014

Pregnancy and drinking

Confused about the risks (or not) of drinking alcohol during pregnancy? Read on...


“Have a drink, it will relax you! Let’s have some champagne to celebrate your pregnancy. One drink won’t hurt and it will cheer you up! Come on, it’s a celebration, a drink won’t harm you.”

You’ve all heard this sort of invitation and advice, and probably thought that having the odd drink at special moments during your pregnancy won’t make any difference to your baby. Well, apparently, think again.

1. Effects of alcohol on the unborn baby
Drinking any kind of alcohol during any stage of pregnancy has consequences, though these vary from mild to severe. Basically, the issue is that when the mother drinks, the baby drinks too.

Amongst potential risks:

  • Greater risk of miscarriage or premature delivery
  • The unborn baby’s body cells can get damaged which could lead to a lower birth weight, and one or more deformities
  • The brain cells of the developing baby can be damaged by alcohol and your baby can be born with mild to severe brain damage, a mental handicap or minimal brain dysfunction, such as dyslexia, autism or hyperactivity

 In cases where the mother-to-be drinks heavily, especially during the first three months of pregnancy, the following severe damage occurs (a condition called "foetal alcohol syndrome"):

  • Mental handicap or retardation
  • Heart defects
  • Low birth weight and size
  • Small head
  • Distinctive facial features, such as a flat upper lip, small eyes and chin, and low-set ears

If you are pregnant and have six glasses of spirits (90 ml of absolute alcohol) a day, your baby is exposed to a 50% risk of being born with foetal alcohol syndrome. FAS is probably the most common single cause of mental handicap. But it is also the most preventable disorder. You can prevent damage by simply avoiding alcohol during the entire pregnancy.

2. When is your baby exposed to greatest risk?

Though there's risk throughout pregnancy, the first trimester is when the baby's brain, spinal cord, heart and liver start to develop. It is a time of active cell division and the cells are particularly sensitive to the effects of alcohol and other negative factors, including poor diet, medicines (prescribed and over-the-counter) and smoking.

Be very careful during these vital three months - don’t drink alcohol, smoke or take medicines (not even a headache pill), and ensure that your diet is balanced.

Alcohol can also have highly negative effects during the last two trimesters of pregnancy (from the 3rd to the 9th month). During this period the unborn baby grows rapidly and alcohol can adversely affect its growth, causing low birth weight and retarded early development.

And what about the time before you fall pregnant? The best thing to do if you are planning to fall pregnant is to stop drinking immediately and abstain until well after the baby’s birth. This will give your baby the best possible chance to avoid damage caused by alcohol.

3. Should alcoholic drinks carry a health warning?
In my opinion all alcoholic drinks and products that contain alcohol, such as certain tonics, should carry a health warning “Do not drink alcohol during pregnancy", or "Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can do irreparable harm to your unborn baby”.

We are constantly being warned against drinking and driving. Nowadays alcoholic drinks carry a warning that these products should not be sold to minors. These are excellent campaigns, which help to alert the public about the dangers of causing road accidents while under the influence, and the very real danger of exposing teenagers to alcohol abuse. But no mention is made of unborn children who are even less able to protect themselves.

A campaign which warns mothers not to drink immediately before, during and after pregnancy (while breast-feeding), is called for. A great deal of misery could be spared if all mothers could be made aware of the risks they are exposing their unborn babies to when they have a drink.

So if you are planning to fall pregnant, stop drinking well in advance. While you are pregnant and breast-feeding, have plenty of healthy drinks like fruit juice, milk and water.

And when you toast your pregnancy, ask for a glass of sparkling grape or apple juice. Only then will the toast, “good health”, also apply to your unborn baby.

(Dr I.V. van Heerden, registered dietician)


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