Alcohol and pregnancy

Before you become pregnant

Drinking too much alcohol can affect your ability to get pregnant and can be harmful during pregnancy for both you and your baby. Drinking too much alcohol can also affect a man’s fertility and damage his sperm. For many people, trying for a baby is great motivation for stopping or cutting down on drinking and improving their general health.

The Department of Health recommends that women trying for a baby shouldn’t drink alcohol at all. This is to protect your unborn baby in case you don’t know that you are pregnant yet. Regularly drinking more than the recommended daily amount increases your risk of a number of health problems – for you and your partner – and reduces your chance of getting pregnant. Cutting out alcohol helps you to prepare for a healthy pregnancy. See our article on sensible drinking for more information.

Drinking during pregnancy

The advice on drinking during pregnancy can be confusing. The Department of Health recommends pregnant women shouldn’t drink alcohol at all throughout their entire pregnancy; whereas the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that it’s most important not to drink during the first three months because of the risk of miscarriage.

Furthermore, some studies suggest that one or two units of alcohol a week during pregnancy may not do any harm.

The safest choice, however, is not to drink at all. Cut out alcohol and you will improve your chance of having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. Experts agree that if you do choose to drink when pregnant, you should limit yourself to one to two units of alcohol, once or twice a week. The NICE guidelines also state that drinking alcohol to excess or binge drinking during your pregnancy may harm your developing baby. Binge drinking is defined as drinking twice the standard daily recommended units in one session (this is six units for women).

Problems for you during pregnancy

Heavy drinking during pregnancy may increase your risk of the following problems.

  • Miscarriage and stillbirth. These are usually due to chance, but drinking alcohol while pregnant can increase your risk.
  • High blood pressure. This can lead to growth problems for your baby or premature birth.
  • Premature labour/birth. This is when you go into labour before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

Problems for your developing baby

Alcohol passes through your placenta into your baby’s bloodstream. Alcohol is processed by your baby’s liver as well as your own. However, your baby’s liver is one of the last organs to mature and can’t process alcohol as well as you can. Therefore, drinking more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week, particularly during the first three months of your pregnancy when parts of the nervous system are developing, is dangerous to your unborn child. Even after three months, drinking alcohol can still cause problems for your developing baby.

If you drink more than the recommended limits during pregnancy, your baby is at risk of developing a group of physical, mental and behavioural problems, known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). These can include:

  • specific facial characteristics, such as a small head, flat face and narrow eyes
  • slow growth before and after birth
  • learning difficulties, poor memory and hyperactivity
  • vision and hearing problems
  • heart and kidney problems

Not all women who drink alcohol during pregnancy have a baby with FASD but the more you drink, the greater the risk becomes. FASD can be prevented completely by not drinking alcohol during your pregnancy.

Drinking alcohol in pregnancy is also linked to an increased risk of cot death, or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Alcohol and breastfeeding

If you’re breastfeeding, the occasional drink is unlikely to harm your baby. However, alcohol does pass through to your baby in very small amounts in your breast milk. If you’re breastfeeding, the Department of Health recommends you limit yourself to one or two units of alcohol, once or twice a week. If you drink more than this:

  • your milk may taste and smell different and put your baby off
  • it may reduce the amount of milk your baby drinks
  • it may make your baby too sleepy to feed
  • it may make it harder for your baby to digest the milk
  • it may affect your baby’s sleep pattern

Consider expressing milk beforehand if you decide to have a drink and don’t breastfeed your baby for two to three hours after having an alcoholic drink.

If you’re struggling to keep within your limits or are worried about your drinking, don’t be afraid to talk to your GP or midwife who can help you understand your drinking habits and find ways to cut down how much you drink.