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Drinking while pregnant: Everything you need to know

What’s the truth about drinking while pregnant and are there any safe amounts for mum and baby? Here’s what you need to know.

Some topics in life always seem to attract a big reaction in people and drinking while pregnant is one of them.

Despite health guidelines from the National Health and Medical Research Council advising women to avoid alcohol if they’re pregnant or trying to conceive, about 35% of Australian women drink during pregnancy.

So what does the evidence say? Here are your questions about drinking alcohol during pregnancy answered.

Why is alcohol bad for my baby?

There’s no good news when it comes to the effect alcohol can have on an unborn baby. Alcohol is a teratogen, which means it can change normal development in utero. Alcohol in your bloodstream isn’t broken down before it passes through the placenta and reaches the baby.

Because a foetus is very small, it can’t process the alcohol as well as an adult body, so the alcohol can damage its growing cells. Risks include miscarriage, stillbirth, small birth weight and premature labour. In worst-case scenarios, it can cause foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which include physical, mental and behavioural difficulties.

I’m pregnant. Should I stop drinking straight away?

Yes. Ideally you should stop drinking as soon as you’ve conceived, if not before. Research published by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation shows alcohol consumed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy poses the greatest risk to an unborn baby, but giving up alcohol at any time during your pregnancy can help lower the risks.

Many women don’t realise they’re pregnant until they’re already six weeks along, so if you’re trying to get pregnant, it’s best to avoid alcohol. And your partner should put his glass down, too. Research shows that alcohol can impact a man’s fertility and reduce his chances of getting his partner pregnant. One study recommends men drink less alcohol or none at all for at least six months before trying to conceive.

If I drink a lot during my pregnancy will it hurt my baby?

Yes, it can. FASD refers to the range of potential problems when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol. While FASD isn’t talked about a lot, a study by the Australian Rural Health Alliance found there are more children born with FASD each year in Australia than the total combined number of children born each year with autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, who are Down syndrome and who are affected by SIDS.

Symptoms of FASD can be physical, behavioural and cognitive. These include:

  • learning difficulties
  • heart and eye problems
  • memory problems
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty following instructions
  • difficulty with social relationships.

The effects of FASD have ongoing consequences, and symptoms aren’t always recognised at birth. FASD may be diagnosed later in childhood or even adulthood.

Isn’t it only ‘alcoholics’ who damage their baby’s development during pregnancy?

Those who have an alcohol abuse disorder are putting their unborn baby at a high risk of FASD. However, it’s a myth that the condition is limited to babies whose mothers had a problem with alcohol prior to falling pregnant. FASD can happen if the mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy, she doesn’t have to drink heavily or be an alcoholic.

I wouldn’t touch hard spirits while pregnant, but surely a glass of wine can’t hurt?

Yes it can. It’s the amount of alcohol that counts, not what type it is. A standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol and no amount of alcohol is good for an unborn baby.

What if I find it hard to stop drinking during pregnancy?

If you’re worried about your drinking while you’re pregnant or are having trouble stopping, talk to your GP, midwife or community health worker. They'll be able to support you and refer you to a professional who can help.

I was drinking at a wedding a few days before I found out I was pregnant. Have I hurt my baby?

Try not to worry. According to research by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, 47% of Australian women surveyed in a study drank alcohol before they knew they were pregnant. Although drinking at any point isn’t recommended, most doctors will tell you to concentrate on avoiding alcohol for the rest of your pregnancy.

Does this mean I shouldn’t go out with friends while I’m pregnant?

Pregnancy shouldn’t be a reason not to socialise. Try these strategies to steer clear of alcohol when you’re spending time with friends and family:

  • Catch up over breakfast or lunch instead of dinner, to make it easier to not have a drink.
  • Arrange social occasions where alcohol won’t be a main focus, like going to the movies or the beach.
  • Have alcohol-free alternatives on hand so you can avoid being tempted.

How can my partner help me stop drinking during pregnancy?

Research published by BioMed central suggests pregnant women are less likely to drink alcohol if they feel supported in the decision by their partner. Here are some ways a loved one can help:

  • Reconsider your drinking habits - pregnant women are less likely to drink alcohol if their partner doesn’t drink either, advises the Better Health Channel.
  • Don’t offer your pregnant partner alcohol - respect their choices.
  • Have conversations about the risks of drinking during pregnancy to help others understand why it’s important.
  • Keep alcohol-free alternatives at home or make sure they’re available.

Getting help with alcohol and pregnancy

Reset drinking habits with the Daybreak app⁺, Hello Sunday Morning’s online behaviour change program giving you access to 24/7 digital support. The program connects you anonymously with a like-minded online community trying to change their relationship with alcohol.

The Daybreak app is fully subsidised by the Australian Department of Health, which means all Australians get free access.

HCF members may also have access to additional mental health support. For more information contact HCF’s Health and Wellbeing Team at wellbeing@hcf.com.au

Download the Daybreak app on the App Store or Google Play.

Where to find more help for alcohol support, counselling and information:

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Katherine Chatfield
June 2021

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