Drinking and Pregnancy: How Much is Too Much?
Nov 01, 2022
When some women find out they are pregnant, their initial thought isn’t, How wonderful that I’m going to be a mom!
It’s more like, How the hell am I going to go nine whole months without drinking?
There are so many things you have to avoid when you’re expecting: sushi, unpasteurized cheese, processed lunch meats, smoking, excessive caffeine and, of course, drugs and alcohol.
For some women, especially women who rely on alcohol to unwind, the idea of going without their fix can feel daunting.
But quite a few women, even those who drink heavily, may find it surprisingly easy to abstain.
“The rise in pregnancy hormones that cause some women to feel happy or a sense of well-being can also reduce the cravings for alcohol,” theorizes Dr. Bruce Heischober of Kaiser Addiction Medicine attending at Kaiser Riverside.
But he warns postpartum hormones can bring on the opposite.
“Conversely, the crash of these same hormones can bring on postpartum blues or postpartum depression and subsequently lead to a worsening of the alcohol abuse symptoms,” Heischober says.
Not everyone loses the taste for alcohol when they get pregnant, and that can cause trouble for many women — especially women who struggle with problem drinking. Those women may wonder whether it’s OK to drink small amounts.
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When it comes to drinking while pregnant, how much is too much?
If you google “pregnancy + drinking,” you will find that almost every result warns against any alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no amount of alcohol is safe while pregnant or while trying to conceive (1).
The CDC explains this is because alcohol passes to the baby through the umbilical cord. Alcohol use while pregnant can cause:
- physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)
This may sound harsh and absolute, and you may be tempted to look for studies that reassure you with the message that “a little is OK.”
But even a little alcohol has been proven to be risky, as shown in a peer-reviewed study of more than 9,000 youth published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (2).
"Our research found that even small amounts of alcohol consumed while pregnant can have a significant impact on a child's brain development," said lead author Ms. Briana Lees, a PhD candidate at the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of Sydney, in a press release (3).
"Previous research has shown that very heavy alcohol use, such as binge drinking, during pregnancy can cause harm to the baby. However, this study shows that any alcohol use during pregnancy, even low levels, is associated with subtle, yet significant behavioral and psychological effects in children including anxiety, depression and poor attention,” Lees said.
There is no way to know exactly what the effects of any amount of alcohol will be, so why take a chance?
Jane Wilson, a certified drug and alcohol counselor and interventionist in Los Angeles, says, “I have had clients who drank small amounts of alcohol here and there throughout the pregnancy, and if their child has been born with any markers of fetal alcohol syndrome, the guilt is just overwhelming because ramifications of FASD last a lifetime. No substance more negatively impacts a growing fetus than alcohol.”
Some women may put off getting pregnant because the idea of having to go nine months without alcohol is so terrifying. For some, realizing it’s not normal to put off trying to have a baby strictly because they can’t drink may be the impetus to get sober.
But what if you find yourself pregnant or wanting to get pregnant and realize you can’t quit drinking? This is a great opportunity to get help — and there is a lot of help out there.
“The number one tip I give a woman who is pregnant and wants to stop drinking is to do it in a medically supervised manner,” Wilson says.
“Abruptly stopping alcohol can cause a seizure. There is no shame in going to a detox and coming off of alcohol safely. There are many treatment centers that are especially for pregnant women with addiction issues. There are also in-person and virtual meetings where you can find support from like-minded people.” Many treatment programs are specialized to your situation, such as alcohol treatment programs for single parents.
It’s also advisable to let your doctor know you are quitting drinking. There are medications they can prescribe that can help ease alcohol cravings, many of which are safe for pregnant women.
If you figure out you have an alcohol problem before or early on in your pregnancy, think of it as a gift. You now have an opportunity to make a change that will benefit both you and your family.
And if you’re realizing you need help to quit drinking to ensure a healthy pregnancy, remember that you aren’t alone — and that there’s no shame in reaching out.
About The Author
Stefanie Wilder-Taylor is an author, TV personality, and co-host of the popular podcasts For Crying Out Loud, Rose Pricks, and Bored AF. She has authored five books, starting with the irreverent best-seller Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay: And Other Things I Had to Learn as a New Mom. She’s talked sobriety on Good Morning America, The Today Show, 20/20, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, CNN, and more. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.
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Medically reviewed by Joshua D Lee, MD, MSc