Prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol is the main cause of preventable birth defects in the United States. While some believe there is a “safe” amount of alcohol to consume when pregnant, the widespread medical recommendation is that women abstain from drinking altogether while pregnant.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in 10 pregnant women admit to consuming alcohol, and one-third of those women acknowledge that they binge drink. This is a problem not exclusive to one subsection of American women. The problem is prevalent across women of all backgrounds and demographics.

Dangers of Alcohol and Pregnancy

Risks to the Fetus

When an expectant mother consumes alcohol, it travels from her bloodstream through the umbilical cord to the baby. Fetuses are still developing their livers while in utero, so their bodies cannot process alcohol like an adult’s liver can. Even after the alcohol leaves the fetal blood, it can linger in the amniotic fluid. Alcohol can lower the baby’s blood sugar, insulin levels, and thyroid levels. These health problems can lead to low birth weight, birth defects, and even fetal death.

In utero, alcohol is a neurotoxin just like carbon monoxide and lead. It kills the brain cells of the fetus. No amount of alcohol is safe to consume when pregnant, just as no amount of inhaled carbon monoxide nor lead paint is safe for the fetus.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a risk, too. According to Child Neuropsychology, children with fetal alcohol syndrome can experience the following issues:

  • Poor growth: Low birth weight can set the stage for a lifelong struggle for some babies with fetal alcohol syndrome. Throughout their lives, they may struggle to grow or gain weight. In addition, people born with fetal alcohol syndrome sometimes have smaller head sizes than their peers.
  • Birth defects: Babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome may have abnormal facial features, vision and hearing issues, and problems related to the heart, kidneys, or bones.
  • Seizures and other neurological problems: Balance and coordination can be problematic for people with fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • Behavioral issues: Babies may be jittery and have trouble sleeping. As they get older, kids and teens with fetal alcohol syndrome may struggle socially. Some have trouble relating to others and making friends.
  • Learning difficulties: Some people with fetal alcohol syndrome struggle with problem-solving skills. Memory issues can also make learning difficult.
  • Delayed development: Many children with fetal alcohol syndrome are late at reaching milestones, like walking, talking and reading.

A woman’s decision to drink while pregnant can result in a lifetime of negative results for the child. Struggles related to fetal alcohol exposure can continue long into adulthood. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, adults exposed to alcohol in the womb may suffer from mental health disorders and have difficulty being self-sufficient throughout life.

Risks to the Mother

It is not just the fetus that is in danger when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol. Drinking while pregnant is risky for the mother too. Doctors advise against drinking for all pregnant women, and the risks are higher for those with liver problems.

Many women who drink while pregnant have underlying issues they may be self-medicating with alcohol. Expectant mothers with depression or anxiety sometimes turn to alcohol for relief from the symptoms of their mental health disorder. Pregnant or not, alcohol dependency has serious, dangerous effects on a person’s life. Cardiovascular disease, various types of cancer, liver damage, and nerve damage are just some of the potential long-term health effects of alcohol dependency, per WebMD. The chances of experiencing these effects, and the potential for greater severity, are enhanced during pregnancy.

In addition to all the health risks associated with drinking during pregnancy, an alcohol use disorder negatively effects virtually every aspect of life. Individuals may suffer from financial issues, career troubles, and relationship problems; the damage is far-reaching and only compounded by pregnancy.

Help for Pregnant Women with Addiction Issues

Many healthcare professionals believe any alcohol use during pregnancy is a form of abuse. Because of the dangers associated with drinking while pregnant, it is critical for expectant mothers to seek treatment if they are struggling with alcohol abuse.

Since pregnancy is a medical condition that complicates addiction treatment, it’s important to seek out a rehabilitation program that is equipped to treat this demographic. In addition to comprehensive addiction treatment, pregnant clients will be monitored around the clock to ensure their safety and stability during withdrawal and beyond. In some instances, it may be preferable to keep the expectant mother on replacement medications or gradually wean the mother off the substance of abuse; simply stopping the substance cold turkey could result in too much trauma to the mother or fetus. Pregnant women should never attempt to detox on their own; physician-assisted withdrawal is mandatory.

The earlier an expectant mother gets help for her alcohol dependency, the better. If she gets sober early in the first trimester, there is a good chance the baby will be born healthy.

It can be scary to come forward with the truth about one’s drinking habits while pregnant. According to the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Journal, social scrutiny can keep many women from speaking up about their issues. Pregnant women who are dependent on alcohol need love and support from their family and friends, not judgment or isolation. With the support of the people she loves, an expectant mother can begin down a path toward sobriety.