Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is common with statistics showing that around 75% of Australian pregnant women consume alcohol at some stage during their pregnancy.
We can partly blame the fact that alcohol plays such a large part in the ‘Aussie’ culture, with today’s Aussie females reported to be drinking more than in the past and binging in far more greater and frequent amounts.
This is particularly a concern when a woman falls pregnant. A recent Australian study found that over a 3-year period 80% of women consumed alcohol in 3 months prior to conception, and 59% continued to drink alcohol in at least one trimester of the pregnancy. Interestingly enough 25% of non-pregnant women stated that they would continue to drink if became pregnant.
Am I allowed to drink during my pregnancy?
Despite the myths, the current recommendations state:
- Alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy given that there is no safe level of consumption
- Those who are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant are advised that the safest option is to not drink
- Alcohol should also be avoided during breastfeeding
- If one is to drink during breastfeeding one must express milk in advance and allow 24hr before recommencing breastfeeding, and should be limited to no more than 2 standard drinks
This is because there is no known true safe level established for consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Despite that drinking less than two standard drinks per day (10g alcohol per drink) shows no obvious harm to the fetus, ANY alcohol intake can contribute to fetal damage and place the baby at risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
What are the effects of alcohol on my pregnancy?
Alcohol is a dangerous depressant substance that not only impacts on maternal health, but has teratogenic effects on the developing fetus in utero as well as during breastfeeding. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy is also associated with a higher risk of stillbirth which is unexplained death of the baby at delivery, sudden infant death syndrome which occurs days after birth, and spontaneous miscarriage.
The reason alcohol is dangerous for the baby is that it travels through the mothers blood into the placenta and crosses over to the baby’s side freely; thus the growing baby receives a very similar amount of alcohol as what was consumed by its mother. Given that the fetus has limited ability to digest this foreign liquid, alcohol then damages the fetal cells, impairs blood flow and creates widespread damage. The degree of damage will depend on the amount of alcohol consumed, how often and at what stage in the pregnancy it is consumed, the mother’s own body ability to digest the substance, genetic factors and social environment.
The damage done to the fetus is described as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum disorder, which ranges from mild symptoms in the baby such as low glucose when born, to the most severe form of disease Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome features the following:
- Abnormal development of the brain and nervous system – small head, structural brain abnormalities
- Reduced growth of the baby – intrauterine growth restriction, low birth weight, failure to thrive
- Abnormal features of the face – small eye openings, thin upper lip, flat mid-face
- Problems with functioning of the brain – low IQ, unable to focus on tasks and sit still, poor memory, problems with speaking and constructing sentences
Those that suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are likely to also have problems mixing and socializing with other children, and can develop poor behaviours. In some situations this sadly has lead to child abuse and neglect, as well as poor mother-baby bonding. The more alcohol the mother drinks, the worse these problems are.
Can I drink alcohol when breastfeeding?
You are also advised to avoid alcohol whilst breastfeeding. This is because alcohol passes freely from mother into the breast and will be present in breastmilk. Alcohol can also interfere with the quantity of your milk supply, alter both the smell and taste of the the breastmilk, and also disrupt the sleeping patterns of your baby.
Alcohol is therefore not recommended during your pregnancy and breastfeeding periods, and stopping drinking at any time will help contribute to both a healthier mother and baby.