The Effects of Alcohol on Pregnancy

The Effects of Alcohol on Pregnancy

Almost everybody knows that drinking during pregnancy is potentially bad for the baby’s health—it’s the number one cause of birth defects—but not everybody agrees on how bad or how much.

They also don’t know that alcohol can produce harm before a baby is conceived and that men’s drinking can also be dangerous.

Is It Safe to Drink Early in Pregnancy?

Generally, women who are trying to become pregnant drink less or stop drinking. Sometimes, however, women and couples aren’t so much trying to become pregnant as leaving it to chance when they become pregnant. They might not know she is pregnant until she has missed a menstrual period or two, which means she could have been drinking well into the first trimester.

Some believe a little drinking is harmless. Harvard Medical School cited studies that indicate little danger to fetal development caused by drinking in the first three months, even occasional heavy drinking:

  • A 2013 study in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology found little difference in the numbers of children with high blood pressure, premature birth, or low birth weight among study participants, no matter how much their mothers drank up through the first fifteen weeks of pregnancy.
  • As for long-term effects, a 2012 study in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found no problems in executive function (learning, memory, behavior, etc.) among five-year-olds whose mothers drank low to moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy, and little evidence among the children of binge drinkers.

On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, “there is no known safe amount or type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy” and no safe time.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

When a pregnant woman drinks, her unborn child drinks and more heavily. Not only is the fetus smaller than the woman, but it metabolizes the alcohol much more slowly. Alcohol makes it harder for the unborn child to breathe or take in nourishment.

However, the chief danger of drinking during pregnancy is that it may cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) or other fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which are characterized by:

  • High blood pressure leading to seizures
  • Low birth weight and premature births
  • Smaller heads or other physical abnormalities
  • Problems with coordination, attention, judgment, intelligence, language, and learning
  • Sleep problems
  • Poor vision or hearing

How Early in a Pregnancy Should You Stop Drinking?

Some argue that any woman of childbearing years should abstain from alcohol in case she becomes pregnant, but that would overlook at least half the problem: men, whose fertile years are much longer (as old as 92, according to Guinness World Records).

To avoid complications such as fetal alcohol syndrome, the sooner you stop drinking, the better. That not only applies to women but to men as well. It may even apply more to men.

According to a 2019 meta-analysis in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, men who drank in the three months leading to conception had a 44% higher chance of their child having a congenital birth defect, the most common birth defect. If they binge drink more than five drinks per session, the rate goes up to 52%, For women who drank in the three months before conception, the rate is only 16%.

The reason that the drinking men may be more destructive seems to be because alcohol affects the quality of sperm, which can lead to birth defects: physical, cognitive, and developmental disorders.

To be safe, the author of the meta-analysis says, both men and women should stop drinking long before conception occurs: men six months or longer, women a year. If they are unable to do so, they may have an alcohol use disorder and require rehab. Quitting drinking is healthier for adults and their children in the long run.

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