What Happens If You Drink Alcohol During Your Pregnancy?

Drinking alcohol – wine, beer and liquor – can lead to serious complications during pregnancy and after birth. Any amount of alcohol can potentially put an unborn baby at risk and leave a pregnant woman’s health in danger. Alcohol consumption during the early stages of pregnancy, such as before a woman knows that she is pregnant, can harm the mother and her child in a number of ways.

There is no safe amount of alcohol when a woman is pregnant. Evidence-based research has found that drinking even small amounts of alcohol while pregnant can increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, or sudden infant death syndrome.

American Academy of Pediatrics
(pulled from Amian Academy of Pediatrics website)

Unfortunately, many babies are born with health complications – some life-threatening – due to alcoholism. Some infants are required to stay in the hospital for weeks or months after their birth so medical staff can closely monitor their vitals. Others may face a range of developmental issues such as cognitive impairments and learning disabilities. Babies who were exposed to alcohol in the womb are also at risk for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) and birth defects.

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How Does Alcohol Affect A Baby?

When a pregnant woman consumes alcohol, it quickly travels through the bloodstream, eventually making its way to the placenta and umbilical cord. The placenta and umbilical cord supply oxygen and nutrients, which are crucial to a baby’s development. Anything a mother consumes also passes down to her baby, including dangerous substances like alcohol.

While alcohol can be broken down in an adult’s body within a matter of hours, it takes much longer for it to leave a baby’s system. The more time that alcohol remains in a baby’s body, the greater the risk for life-threatening damage to occur in the brain and other vital organs. Prenatal exposure to alcohol, no matter the amount, can cause a wide range of health complications before and after birth.

It can be weeks or even months before a woman learns they are pregnant. In the early stages of pregnancy, alcohol consumption can be extremely harmful and even lead to a miscarriage. Because of this, any woman who thinks she may be pregnant or is trying to become pregnant should not drink.

Consequences Of Drinking While Pregnant

The ways in which alcohol can affect an unborn child varies by case, but health risks can include both short-and long-term complications. Although some dangerous effects of alcohol exposure in the womb can be quickly identified in newborns, other health complications may take years to manifest.

Regular pediatric visits will keep track of a child’s health to make sure their development and motor skills stay on track for their age group.

Miscarriage Or Stillbirth

One of the most common factors that affect miscarriage and stillbirth rates is alcohol consumption during pregnancy. A miscarriage is when a fetus dies within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. If a baby dies after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, it is considered a stillbirth.

Both a miscarriage and a stillbirth can cause a mother a substantial amount of pain and suffering for months to follow. In order to reduce the chance of having a miscarriage or stillbirth, a woman should abstain from drinking and receive proper prenatal care while she is pregnant.

Premature Birth

Alcohol use significantly increases the chances of a premature birth. A premature birth occurs when a baby is born before a mother reaches 37 weeks of pregnancy. Not only do premature births come with a high risk for serious health conditions, but they can be fatal. Even if a baby survives a premature birth, developmental delays can arise later in life. Many times, a child who is born prematurely will require additional medical care and attention during the first few years.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs)

When a woman drinks while pregnant, she is putting her baby at risk of developing a host of physical and behavioral problems. These conditions, known as FASDs, are incurable and can have lifelong effects. Several of the most common issues that arise with FASDs are impaired cognitive skills, inability to control emotions, trouble communicating and completing everyday tasks. Because FASDs affect the brain, children may also suffer from mental health disorders, repeat mistakes and fall victim to bad choices.

Birth Defects

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is one of the main causes of birth defects. Oftentimes, birth defects form within the first trimester and impact how a child’s body looks or functions. Birth defects can include heart problems, cleft lip, spina bifida, down syndrome and clubfoot. While some birth defects can be treated with surgery or medicine, others are more difficult to manage and can affect a child’s health throughout adulthood. An alcohol-free lifestyle is the best way to prevent birth defects and other harmful consequences during pregnancy.


Roughly 10 percent of pregnant women between the ages of 18 and 44 have admitted to drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. Women who drink on a weekly basis pre-pregnancy are up to 50 percent more likely to consume alcohol while pregnant. Approximately one in three women who consume alcohol during pregnancy binge drink. This means that they have four or more alcoholic beverages in a two-hour time period.

Identifying Alcoholism During Pregnancy

Family members and friends are typically some of the first individuals to recognize a potential drinking problem. Some women may feel ashamed or helpless about their alcohol consumption while pregnant. Others may try to conceal their drinking and become resistant to asking for help. In some cases, loved ones may stage an alcohol intervention with the help of a counselor. During an intervention, individuals can express their concerns about the woman’s drinking patterns and the effect they’re having on her unborn baby. If a woman is ready to quit drinking and seek help, treatment options may also be discussed.

The common warning signs of dangerous drinking behaviors while pregnant include:

  • Avoiding prenatal care such as doctor appointments and taking nutrients.
  • Rationalizing how small amounts of alcohol will not affect pregnancy.
  • Distancing themselves from loved ones and living in isolation.
  • Lashing out, acting aggressively and behaving recklessly.
  • Forgetting daily responsibilities and tasks at home or work.

In many areas, prenatal doctor appointments also involve substance abuse screenings. During these screenings, medical staff will look for any warning signs of illicit drug and alcohol use – dilated pupils, scent of alcohol on breath or skin, and shakiness. If alcohol use is suspected, a referral for treatment is often provided.

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Keeping Your Baby Safe After Birth

Heavy alcohol use can affect a baby even after a woman has given birth. For example, drinking and breastfeeding is a dangerous combination. Similar to how alcohol can move from a woman’s bloodstream into the umbilical cord and placenta, it can also pass through breast milk.

The amount of time it takes for alcohol to leave a woman’s breast milk varies by how much was consumed, as well as body weight. A common misconception is that pumping and dumping breast milk will help speed up the process of removing alcohol from a woman’s body. However, that is not the case. In fact, it can take several hours for just one drink to be entirely eliminated from the body.

A baby exposed to alcohol through breast milk has an increased risk of delaying motor skill development and other health conditions. To avoid potential complications from arising after birth, a woman should speak with a healthcare professional about caring for a newborn. Doctors and nurses will be able to provide information on what to expect during the first few weeks and months, as well as other safety tips.

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Alcohol Treatment For Pregnant Women

There are countless alcohol treatment programs across the nation that specialize in helping pregnant women overcome a drinking problem. The sooner a woman commits to stop drinking, the greater the chance of having a trouble-free pregnancy and healthy baby.

The recommended form of treatment will often vary depending on how long and how frequent the woman has been drinking. For instance, if a woman’s alcohol use disorder (AUD) is minor, a physician may refer her to an outpatient treatment center. However, 24/7 medical care from an inpatient facility is usually required for more severe cases of alcohol use. These programs allow physicians to monitor both mother and baby closely during detox and other stages of the recovery process.

Get Help Today

If you’re pregnant and struggling with a problematic drinking behavior, it’s not too late to get help.

Contact a treatment provider for more information about the next steps you can take.

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