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Drinking When Pregnant (and the Struggle to Quit)

November 21, 2022

Whether it is planned or a surprise, having a baby is a major life event. There are countless considerations when bringing new life into the world. If you are like many expectant mothers, your primary order of business may be how to navigate nine months of pregnancy. For some women, pregnancy is a breeze, while others might find it a bit more daunting.

Perhaps you are expecting and struggle with a chemical dependency such as alcohol. Or maybe you just drink a little during the week to help lighten the stress of the day. What does the medical community say about alcohol consumption during pregnancy? Is drinking when pregnant OK in moderation? How can prolonged alcohol use during pregnancy affect your baby?

How Common is Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol consumption during pregnancy is more common than you think. The organization cites data published by the Maternal and Child Health Journal that found approximately 20-30% of women have reported drinking during some point of their pregnancy. Additionally, more than 8% of women have reported binge drinking while pregnant.

More than 8% of women have reported binge drinking while pregnant.

Reasons a woman might drink during pregnancy can range from being unaware she is pregnant, to using alcohol as a coping strategy for difficult life circumstances, to not being fully educated on the possible risks of alcohol consumption while pregnant. The risks are many, however, and alcohol consumption at any stage of pregnancy can have lifelong consequences.

Risks of Drinking When Pregnant

Drinking when pregnant is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Columbia University’s Center For Science and Society notes that the term “fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)” first appeared in the 1970s after some case studies were conducted on children of alcoholic mothers. The Center says, “Guidelines advising against drinking during pregnancy were swiftly put in place.”

FAS is just one of five disorders that comprises fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). According to the National Library of Medicine, FASD “classify the wide-ranging physical and neurological effects that prenatal alcohol exposure can inflict on a fetus.” Also included in FASD are partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE), and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD).

What are FASD symptoms? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the following symptoms, among others:

  • Low body weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones
  • Shorter-than-average height
  • Small head size
  • Abnormal facial features

 Equally concerning is the rate at which FASD is being diagnosed. JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) conducted a study that estimated the prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders among first-graders in four US communities. Using a conservative approach, the results ranged from 1.1-5.0%.

Preventing FASD

The best preventative for FASD is to abstain from alcohol while pregnant. Health advocates worldwide agree that heavy alcohol use during pregnancy can have potentially devastating outcomes. But what about alcohol use in moderation?

baby feetAlthough different obstetricians hold varying opinions on the subject, the truth is, says UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Dr. Robyn Horsager-Boehrer, the effects of an occasional glass of wine is less understood. “Because we’re just not sure, there has been a push for women to refrain from consuming any alcohol while trying to get pregnant and during pregnancy.”

Similarly, new research from the University of Sydney finds that “even low levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have an impact on a child’s brain development and is associated with greater psychological and behavioral problems in youth including anxiety, depression, and poor attention.”

If you are fully aware of the risks and still searching for loopholes to continue drinking when pregnant, this could be a sign you have a problem.

How to Stop Drinking When Pregnant

Perhaps you are unexpectedly pregnant and hadn’t planned on a lifestyle change. Or maybe you are afraid to seek help for fear of any social stigma attached to pregnant moms who drink. No doubt quitting alcohol will be challenging, but the rewards will be worth it.

  • Plan Ahead

If you know you are going to be at a party where alcohol is being served, bring a mocktail or ask the host about nonalcoholic alternatives.

  • Avoid Triggers

If your usual hangout is a bar or activity that revolves around drinking, avoid places and situations where you know you will be tempted to indulge.

  • Eliminate Alcohol From Your Home

Get rid of all alcohol in your house. If it’s not readily available, you’ll need to make much effort if you feel the urge for a drink.

  • Find Healthy Ways to De-stress

Explore hobbies, exercise, read, meditate; look for new avenues to help you unwind at the end of a taxing day.

  • Surround Yourself with Supportive Friends and Family

Tell those close to you that you are quitting, and choose to be around people who support your desire for sobriety.

If you find that none of the above work for you or that you need more intentional intervention from a medical professional or treatment center, please do not hesitate to reach out. It’s never too late to stop drinking when pregnant, and we at Willow House at The Meadows desire to help you and your baby have an alcohol-free pregnancy. Our programs for women focus on healing from trauma and addiction in a safe, private setting. Please visit us today to learn how we can help you.