There is no way to know for certain the impact that drinking alcohol might have on an unborn baby. It may have different effects at different times during pregnancy and may affect one baby but not another.
What we do know is that heavy drinking during pregnancy increases the risk of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). There are also studies indicating that low and moderate level drinking could affect the child’s development.
The best thing a woman can do for her unborn baby is to avoid alcohol at all stages of pregnancy and whilst trying to conceive.
Alcohol is a toxin. When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol in her blood passes freely through the placenta into the developing baby’s blood. In the absence of a developed blood filtration system, the foetus is completely unprotected from alcohol circulating in its blood system. Alcohol can destroy brain cells and damage the nervous system of the foetus at any point during the nine months of pregnancy.
What effect does alcohol have?
The effects can be mild or severe, ranging from reduced intellectual ability and attention deficit disorder to heart problems and even death. Many children experience serious behavioural and social difficulties that last a lifetime.
Although alcohol can affect the development of cells and organs, the brain and nervous systems are particularly vulnerable. We can’t see the neurological brain damage that is caused, but there are a number of invisible characteristics in babies born with FASD that may continue in later life, which include:
- attention deficits
- memory deficits
- difficulty with abstract concepts (eg. maths, time and money)
- poor problem-solving skills
- difficulty learning from consequences
- confused social skills
There are also a number of possible physical effects, including:
- smaller head circumference
- heart problems
- limb damage
- kidney damage
- damage to the structure of the brain
- eye and vision problems
- hearing problems
- specific facial characteristics
What should you do if you think you are pregnant?
It is never too late to stop drinking and improve the health of your child.
If you need help to stop drinking or have any concerns or questions about pregnancy and alcohol:
- Call the NOFAS-UK helpline on 020 8458 5951.
- Visit the NOFAS-UK website.
- Contact your GP or midwife.
What level of alcohol exposure is a risk?
It is difficult to estimate safe levels of alcohol in pregnancy. The effect of alcohol on the foetus may be different for each woman. What we know however from medical studies is that if a woman drinks at high levels during pregnancy, there is a high risk of damage to the child.
Alcohol consumed at low levels in pregnancy might cause cognitive damage to the child and how they process information. The safest advice for pregnant women is to abstain from alcohol throughout the pregnancy.
It is never too late to stop drinking in pregnancy. If a woman drank alcohol before she found out she was pregnant, the safest option is to stop now.
Watch a video with advice for pregnant women about FASD