Can you drink alcohol in pregnancy? We look at the argument surrounding the issue.
Alcohol can be a health worry at the best of times, but now you’re pregnant, it’s not just your own health you need to think about.
What’s more, government guidelines on drinking during pregnancy have recently changed, leaving confusion in their wake.
In England, 83% of mums who had recently given birth drank before pregnancy. Once pregnant, 55% continued drinking, and 62% drank less than before they were pregnant.
Whether you had a few drinks before you found out you were pregnant, are unsure if it’s alright to drink during pregnancy, or you’re trying to conceive, this guide should answer your questions.
In May 2007, the Department of Health (DH) released new guidelines on alcohol in pregnancy.
It's now recommended that you should avoid drinking alcohol at all if you’re pregnant, and that you should also cut out alcohol if you’re trying to conceive.
In black-and-white terms, the guidelines couldn’t be clearer. But pregnancy, and finding out that you're pregnant, can be more of a grey area: many women simply don’t realise that they’re pregnant in the early days, for example.
Dr Dawn Harper, a GP with a special interest in women’s health, agrees.
"I think around one in four pregnancies in this country are unplanned – although that doesn’t mean that they’re not wanted. But until the period is missed, these women carry on as normal. I’ll be honest: I didn’t realise when I was pregnant with my first child, and I drank at a party," say Dr Harper.
Every month in my work as a GP, I see women who are very happy to discover they’re pregnant, but concerned that they had a few drinks before finding out.
Dr Dawn Harper, GP
To fully realise the serious implications that alcohol consumption can have on an unborn baby, it’s important to understand your body’s role in your baby’s development.
Your baby is nourished through the placenta – and any alcohol that you drink passes through the placenta to your baby. Your baby’s liver doesn't mature until later in pregnancy and is unable to process alcohol efficiently, meaning that the foetus can be exposed to greater amounts of alcohol for longer.
Heavy alcohol use can cause serious damage to the foetus during pregnancy, a lifelong condition known as foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children and adults with FAS suffer a range of problems, from facial abnormalities to behavioral and learning disorders.
Binge drinking and drinking over the recommended levels in pregnancy have also been linked to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) – a similar condition where children suffer some, but not all, of the symptoms of FAS.
Confusingly, the DH guidelines also say that if you do choose to carry on drinking in pregnancy – despite the advice not to drink at all – you should stick to one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week.
Dr Harper explains: "We know that heavy drinking definitely causes harm to an unborn baby, but some experts are still debating whether low levels of alcohol have any effect. The bottom line, however, is that drinking alcohol isn’t going to do your baby any good, so why not just give it up?"
If you still have further concerns about alcohol in pregnancy, then talk to your GP or midwife, who should be able to reassure you.
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