Although most women give up alcohol once they know they are pregnant, drinking during pregnancy is actually common, a study conducted among women in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand has revealed.
According to the study published in the BMJ Open medical journal, substantial numbers of women pay no attention to safe drinking guidelines. Health authorities in Ireland, New Zealand and Australia recommend that women abstain from alcohol for the duration of their pregnancies, whereas the UK advises that one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week will not harm the baby after the first three months.
The research, based on the results of several studies in those countries, found that 80% of more than 17 000 women may have consumed alcohol during their first trimester of pregnancy.
Dr Linda O’Keeffe of the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge University said, “It is possible that some of these women were drinking before they knew they were pregnant and that could be contributing to the high rates.” She added that the researchers were not blaming women, but emphasised that women of childbearing age should be provided with better information about the risks of alcohol to the foetus.
In all countries, drinking dropped significantly in the second trimester of pregnancy, according to the study.
Drinking during pregnancy can lead to foetal alcohol syndrome
South Africa has the highest recorded rate of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in the world. Scientists estimate that as much as 10% of the population is affected by either FAS or the spectrum of disorders related to it.
While there is no cure for FAS, it is entirely preventable and can be completely avoided by simply abstaining from alcohol during pregnancy. Because a foetus’s developing brain is very sensitive to alcohol, even small amounts may cause permanent brain damage. There is no “safe” amount of alcohol during pregnancy, and no safe time to drink. It should be avoided completely, says Dr Mhleli Masango, Medical Director of the South African Breastmilk Reserve (SABR).
If you drink at any time during your pregnancy, the alcohol can affect your baby. Here are some reasons why:
- Drinking alcohol is potentially most harmful to your baby in the first three months of pregnancy, when it is linked to miscarriage and birth abnormalities.
- Alcohol crosses from your bloodstream through the placenta into your baby’s blood. How a baby will be affected depends on how much the mother drinks and at what point in her pregnancy.
- Damage to the organs and nervous system of your baby through heavy drinking is most likely to happen in the first three months, because your baby’s liver does not mature until the second half of pregnancy so it cannot process alcohol as well as you can.
- Drinking in early pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth and low birth weight.
- Drinking in the second half of your pregnancy can affect how your baby grows and develops, as well as after he is born.
- Drinking heavily (more than six units a day) throughout pregnancy can cause your baby to develop a serious condition called foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
- The effects of FAS include restricted growth, development delays, low IQ, brain damage, facial abnormalities, and learning, social and behavioural disorders.
- Binge drinking, or regularly drinking over the recommended level, may be associated with lesser forms of FAS. The risk is likely to be greater the more you drink.
Experts are still unsure about exactly how much alcohol is safe during pregnancy, so the best approach is not to drink at all while you are expecting.
Can I drink while breastfeeding?
Yes, but in moderation. “While a baby cannot develop FAS from ingesting alcohol in breastmilk, excessive amounts can still cause harm,” warns Dr Masango. “Mothers should limit themselves to one drink per day or less.”
Because alcohol passes freely into a mother’s breastmilk and peaks 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion, nursing should be delayed until at least two hours after the alcohol has been drunk. Always keep in mind the baby’s age when considering the effect of alcohol. A newborn has a very immature liver, so even really small amounts of alcohol would be more of a burden. Up until around 3 months of age, infants process alcohol at around half the rate of an adult. An older baby or toddler can metabolize the alcohol more quickly.
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