How can alcohol harm my unborn baby?
Most women give alcohol up completely in pregnancy because this is the safest way. When you drink, alcohol passes from your blood through the placenta and to your baby. There is no known safe level for drinking during pregnancy, so the safest approach is not to drink at all while you're pregnant and if you are trying for a baby.
It is particularly advised not to drink alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy as this is a time of huge growth and development.
If you do decide to drink, it is recommended that you do not drink alcohol in the first three months and thereafter limit yourself to no more than one or two units, not more than once or twice a week.
What could happen if I drink heavily?
Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby and the more you drink, the greater the risk.
Getting drunk and/or drinking every day are especially dangerous.
Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol at any stage during pregnancy is linked to the following:
- early miscarriage
- premature birth
- brain development in the womb
- restricted growth in the womb
- illness in childhood and infancy
- FAS (see below)
What is fetal alcohol syndrome?
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the name given to problems that are found in children whose mothers drank heavily during pregnancy. These include facial abnormalities, heart defects, poor growth and severe mental and developmental problems.
What if I drank alcohol before I knew I was pregnant?
If you drank a lot before you knew you were pregnant and are worried about the effect this may have on your baby, talk to your midwife or GP.
They will probably reassure you that the risk to your baby is small if you weren’t a regular heavy drinker. You can stop drinking completely now that you know you’re pregnant.
The risk of harm to the baby is likely to be low if you were not binge drinking or regularly drinking over the recommended amount.
What if I need help to stop drinking?
If you drink heavily and you think you may have problems stopping, talk to your doctor or midwife.
This is because you may have withdrawal symptoms. These can include delirium tremens (DTs), and you will need help to manage them.
The health team caring for you during your pregnancy can give you advice and support. You can also contact Drinkline, a free and confidential helpline, on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am - 8pm, weekends 11am - 4pm).
Is my drinking is out of control?
Some women know they are drinking too much but don't feel able to talk about it. It's easy to feel guilty or ashamed because you know you shouldn’t be drinking alcohol in pregnancy.
Everyone who cares for you during your pregnancy wants you to be well and to have a healthy baby. Cutting down or stopping on your own can be difficult, and you may need help.
Talk to your doctor or midwife - they won't judge you and they can put you in touch with more support if you need it.
Getting support with alcohol
If you have difficulty giving up alcohol, talk to your midwife, doctor or pharmacist. They will not judge you and will want to support you.
- Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you're worried about your own or someone else's drinking, call this free helpline on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am - 8pm, weekends 11am - 4pm).
- Addaction is a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals, families and communities to manage the effects of alcohol and drug misuse.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a free self-help group. Its "12-step" programme involves getting sober with the help of regular support groups.
One in 13 women who consume alcohol in pregnancy will go on to have a child with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
In pregnancy it's important to eat well. If you are used to eating foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat, you can make a few changes that will be good for you and your baby.
The amount of alcohol in a drink is measured in 'units'. One unit refers to 10ml of alcohol.
Avoiding alcohol may be easy if, like lots of women, you go off the taste early in your pregnancy. But for some others, it can be a challenge.
- RCOG (2016) Alcohol and pregnancy. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, London, England https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/patients/patient-leaflets/alcohol-and-pregnancy/
- NHS Choices [accessed 27/06/2017]‘Low-level drinking in early pregnancy “harms baby”’, Behind the headlines http://www.nhs.uk/news/2014/03March/Pages/Low-level-drinking-in-early-pr...
- Nykjaer C, Alwan NA, Greenwood DC et al. (2014) ‘Maternal alcohol intake prior to and during pregnancy and risk of adverse birth outcomes: evidence from a British cohort’,
- Patra J et al. (2011). “Dose response relationship between alcohol consumption before and during pregnancy and the risk of low birthweight, preterm and small for gestational age (SGA)- a systematic review and meta-analyses.” BJOG 2011;118:1411-1421
- May PA, et al. (2011). “Maternal risk factors predicting child physical characteristics and dysmorphology in fetal alcohol syndrome and partial fetal alcohol syndrome.” Drug and alcohol dependence 2011;119:18-27
- Drinkaware [accessed 27/06/2017] Binge drinking https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/understand-your-drinking/is-your-drinking-a...
ℹLast reviewed on June 27th, 2017. Next review date April 27th, 2020.
By Anonymous (not verified) on 9 Sep 2017 - 00:56
Hi is alcohol free beers safe to drink like 2/3 once a week? Thanks x
By Midwife @Tommys on 11 Sep 2017 - 16:35
Hi - it depends on if the beer is low alcohol or alcohol free. You should be able to find out this information on the label - we'd advise caution as some alcohol free drinks contain small amounts of alcohol which can add up if drank a few times a week.
Have a look at our advice on a enjoying an alcohol free pregnancy
By Anonymous (not verified) on 24 Jun 2017 - 16:53
what if you want to go out and have a couple of drinks while your pregnant? like once every 3 months or so?
By Midwife @Tommys on 26 Jun 2017 - 11:08
Have a look at our top tips for an alcohol free pregnancy https://www.tommys.org/pregnancy-information/im-pregnant/alcohol-pregnancy/tips-alcohol-free-pregnancy