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What are the Risks of Drinking Alcohol When Pregnant?

By B. Miller
Updated May 17, 2024
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The risks of drinking alcohol when pregnant are significant, and can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, or stillbirth, in addition to severe, lifelong damage to the child. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is one of the most severe risks of drinking alcohol when pregnant, but there are a number of other disorders known as the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) that can also cause significant damage. These risks occur because any alcohol that is consumed while pregnant is passed into the fetus, where it is then processed very slowly, affecting the fetal development process.

Most doctors recommend completely abstaining from alcohol when pregnant and while trying to get pregnant, since alcohol consumed even in the first few weeks of pregnancy can still affect the development of the fetus. Moderate or heavy drinking to excess or drunkenness should never take place while pregnant, though some doctors state that light drinking every once in a while is acceptable, such as one small glass of wine. It is best to discuss this with a physician. Alcohol should also not be consumed while breastfeeding.

The most common risks of drinking alcohol when pregnant are issues caused to the fetus. This can include severe developmental issues as in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, in which the child may be born extremely small and underweight with extensive physical and mental disabilities. Organs, particularly the brain and the heart, may not form properly. These children also often have very small heads with facial deformities, as well as trouble with bone and muscle growth throughout life, leading to problems with coordination. In addition, learning disabilities, behavioral issues, and memory problems are also quite common.

These issues are similar when considering other Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, though they may be less severe. Organ and physical development are most often affected, leading to babies with a low birth weight. Learning difficulties or disabilities, emotional issues, trouble concentrating, and delays in speech are also quite common. Drinking alcohol when pregnant can cause the child to perform poorly in school or work over the course of his or her life due to the effects of alcohol on the developing brain. As mentioned above, drinking alcohol when pregnant can also lead to miscarriage, which can be dangerous for the mother as well, in addition to premature birth or stillbirth; drinking alcohol while pregnant makes it much less likely that the child will be carried until he or she is full term.

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