During pregnancy, your body does superhuman things. It creates new organs, almost doubles its blood supply, and grows life faster than you can grow your fingernails. This awe-inspiring work is, well, exhausting.
Pregnancy also comes with a host of side effects and a hormonal roller coaster. Maintaining that pregnancy glow and bliss in the face of this ride can also be tough, and it’s important to put your feet up and de-stress now and then.
But unwinding with a glass of wine is one option that you shouldn’t choose while pregnant. Drinking any kind of alcohol during pregnancy can be very harmful for your baby.
The benefits of trading your glass of red wine for a delicious non-alcoholic lime and lychee mocktail far outweighs the risks. But we know, there’s been some conflicting information out there lately — so let’s take a look at what you need to keep in mind when it comes to what’s best for you and your baby.
Regardless of what you may hear from your second-cousin-twice-removed whose brother-in-law’s boss has a friend living in Paris, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises that no amount of alcohol is safe for pregnant woman.
Red wine may sound like a more elegant choice than a beer or shot of tequila, but the truth is, all alcohol contains the same chemical.
And yes, European medical organizations agree. In countries like the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, and Italy, alcohol is included in the list of harmful drugs that pregnant women must avoid.
Even in France, where you may have been told women effortlessly eat baguettes and sip wine while cycling along the Seine, health campaigns proclaim: “Zero alcohol during pregnancy.” In fact, all alcohol in that country must include a label that advises complete abstinence for pregnant women.
- you’re pregnant
- you think you might be pregnant
- you’re trying to get pregnant
On your baby
Any amount or type of alcohol may harm your baby, and their health is too precious to risk. When you drink while pregnant:
- Alcohol can go into your bloodstream, through the placenta, and to your baby.
- Your baby may get a higher blood concentration than you do — their developing body can’t get rid of it as fast as you can.
- Alcohol may block some of the oxygen and nutrition your baby needs for healthy growth.
- In some cases — and especially in larger quantities — alcohol can slow or harm organ growth and cause permanent brain damage in your developing baby.
Most fetal health issues that are linked to alcohol are known by the broad term fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). One 2017 review of studies even found that
And what about those rumors that European women drink wine throughout their pregnancies and their babies are fine? Well, the same review found that Europe had the highest overall percentage of babies born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Some babies with FASDs may appear healthy but have problems with:
- body coordination
- attention and focus
- understanding consequences
The most serious kind of FASD is called fetal alcohol syndrome. This health condition may cause:
- smaller head size
- abnormal facial features (small eyes; short, upturned nose; thin upper lip)
- lower-than-average height
- lower-than-average weight
- vision problems
- hearing problems
- heart defects
- kidney problems
- bone problems
- smaller brain
On your pregnancy
Some types of problems during pregnancy and birth are linked to alcohol, but may not be classified as strictly alcohol-related birth issues. These include:
- slower growth in the womb
- premature birth
- low birth weight
Drinking red wine while breastfeeding your baby can also lead to problems. There may be a link between drinking alcohol and issues like:
- low breastmilk production
- poor sleeping patterns for your baby
- poor infant development
On later childhood
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy may also cause other issues that can begin later in your child’s life.
These include at-risk behaviors and social issues. That 2017 review of studies suggested that FASD is
Drinking during pregnancy may give your child a higher risk of:
- attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- inappropriate social conduct
- eating disorders
- alcohol or drug misuse
- employment problems
- inappropriate sexual behaviors
- early death
We’re not saying these issues will necessarily occur, and we’re not trying to scare you. But there is increased risk, and we know that you want the absolute best for your baby. It’s because of these well-established links that we advise total abstinence from alcohol during your pregnancy.
If you struggle with alcohol addiction, we also know abstaining is a whole different challenge. Talk to your healthcare provider and let your friends and family in on your struggle if they’re positive and helpful. You can do this, and those around you want to help.
Now, let’s take a look at the new, controversial research on “light” drinking — quotation marks intentional.
Let’s start with some background: The original U.S. Surgeon General’s warning about alcohol in pregnancy having the potential to cause fetal alcohol syndrome was issued in 1981.
It specifically mentioned “heavy drinking” causing defects but didn’t really define what would be classified as heavy drinking. So the controversy about total abstinence guidelines started almost immediately.
There are even reported instances of midwives
But just to be clear, the 1981 warning did mention that certain risks — like miscarriage and low birth weight — increased even in women who drank as little as an ounce of alcohol per day. No research since has been able to conclusively contradict this. Still, many have claimed that light drinking is fine.
A 2013 British study is considered particularly groundbreaking. It looked at nearly 7,000 children who were 10 years old and had mothers who self-reported various levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. (Most reported little to no consumption.) The study found that light to moderate drinking had no negative effect on the balance of these children, and even higher amounts of drinking was associated with better balance.
There are a few problems with this study: One, there were other factors, including socioeconomic ones, at play — although the study did try to adjust for these. Two, the study only looked at balance, and not other common indicators of FASD.
What’s so notable, though — and mentioned by the study investigators — is that this study seemed to contradict earlier ones that suggested poorer balance is associated with drinking during pregnancy. Should those earlier studies just be dismissed? A lot of researchers aren’t sure.
A more recent study looked at childhood behavior problems. The researchers acknowledged specifically that there wasn’t enough information about light drinking in pregnancy. Researchers did find a link between moderate drinking (up to six servings per week, without binge drinking) and early onset behavior issues.
Other research found that drinking small amounts of alcohol before 15 weeks of pregnancy wasn’t linked to problems in the baby’s development or birth. (Is your head spinning yet? Because we’re getting whiplash!)
But on the other hand, alcohol has been linked to different problems at different times of a pregnancy.
But we do know that your baby’s brain is still growing and developing in the last trimester of pregnancy. In fact, that kick in the ribs you feel is actually your baby testing out their brain’s development. Alcohol can possibly affect your baby’s brain at any time during your pregnancy.
So what do we make of it all? Research is mixed. And medical experts don’t agree on exactly how much alcohol is safe. “Light” drinking may mean different things to different people. Studies are sometimes vague and don’t always talk about how alcohol is measured.
There also may be a genetic component that we don’t yet know about. We know, for example, that you can be genetically predisposed to getting certain types of breast cancer. Could the same be said for FASD? We just don’t know.
Much more research is needed before experts can guarantee what amount of alcohol — if any — is safe for pregnant women. In the meantime, the guidance to completely avoid red wine and all other alcohol still stands.
The (blunt) bottom line
FASD doesn’t always occur when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy. But FASD has one cause: alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Avoid drinking entirely and you avoid the risk of FASD, no matter how great or small that risk may be.
It’s not safe to drink red wine or any other kind of alcohol if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Wine isn’t safer to drink than other types of alcohol, like spirits.
Studies on the health risks of alcohol in pregnancy go back decades. The same outcomes from alcohol and FASD are found around the world.
If you drank alcohol accidentally or when you didn’t know you were pregnant, don’t worry. Avoid drinking any alcohol for the rest of your pregnancy. And let your doctor know immediately if you’re having trouble giving up alcohol — there’s help available.
We all need to decompress at the end of a hard day. Replace your evening glass of wine with a cool glass of coconut water or antioxidant-rich grape juice. Add an herbal tea and a warm bath to help you relax, and remember that these days will go by fast — and you’ll be able to enjoy your favorites again before you know it.