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 expecting.
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.
What could happen if I drink heavily?
Drinking heavily (more than six units a day) throughout pregnancy is dangerous. It can cause your baby to develop a serious condition called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
Children with FAS can have:
- Restricted growth
- Facial abnormalities
- Heart defects
- Learning and behaviour disorders
FAS can be caused by binge drinking (drinking more than five standard drinks or 6 units in a single session) or regularly drinking more than one or two units once or twice a week. The more you drink, the higher the risk.
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.
What if I had a drink 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 drunk only small amounts of alcohol before you knew you were pregnant or during pregnancy.
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.
1. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2008) ‘Antenatal Care’, NICE Clinical Guidelines 62: http://publications.nice.org.uk/antenatal-care-cg62
2. NHS Choices [accessed 12/11/2014] Alcohol in pregnancy http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/alcohol-medicines-drugs-pregnant.aspx
4. NCCWCH (2008) Antenatal care, routine care for the healthy pregnant woman, http://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg62/evidence/cg62-antenatal-care-full-guideline-corrected-june-20082
6. ‘Low-level drinking in early pregnancy “harms baby”’, NHS Choices, 11 March 2014: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2014/03March/Pages/Low-level-drinking-in-early-pregnancy-can-harm-your-baby.aspx [accessed 18 January 2015] Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 68 (6): 542–9.
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9. 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
10. Drinkaware [accessed 28/04/2015] Binge drinking https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/understand-your-drinking/is-your-drinking-a-problem/binge-drinking
12. Department of Health (Jan 2016) UK Chief Medical Officer's Alcohol Guidelines Review, summary of the proposed new guidelines.
ℹLast reviewed on April 15th, 2015. Next review date April 15th, 2018.