A few generations ago, alcohol consumption among pregnant women was no big deal. Indeed, it’s common for women today to remark that their mothers smoked or drank while pregnant. Therefore, since they turned out okay, it must be acceptable for them to do the same.
Think again. Drinking while you’re pregnant is like playing Russian roulette with your baby, particularly if you’re already an alcoholic and drink to excess. It doesn’t matter if you can point to a few cases where drinking during pregnancy didn’t cause a catastrophe. It’s also possible to find smokers who didn’t get lung cancer and people who’s suicide attempts failed, but that doesn’t make either of these behaviors safe. Though one in 13 women continue to drink after learning they’re pregnant, alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs to which you can expose your developing child.
Risks of Drinking During Pregnancy
Alcohol is bad for women’s health, which means that it can also harm their developing babies. From raising blood pressure to increasing your likelihood of gaining excess weight, the myriad ways alcohol harms your health can lead to even more serious problems when you’re pregnant. But alcohol can also directly attack your developing baby. Like other drugs, alcohol is a teratogen, which means it can change your baby’s course of development. This, in turn, can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, and a host of birth defects.
Children whose mothers drank during pregnancy are also at increased risk of mental health, behavioral, and physical health problems. Some research, for example, suggests that drinking during pregnancy increases the likelihood of a child subsequently developing ADHD.
The most well-studied risk of drinking during pregnancy is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS ranges in severity from child to child, and there’s no way to predict how severe any individual child’s symptoms will be. Children with FAS can suffer a host of challenges, including:
- Poor muscle tone and lack of coordination
- Slow growth both before and after birth
- Facial deformities including small eyes and poorly formed mouths
- Small heads
- Stunted development
- Heart defects
- Difficulties with cognition and learning
- Behavioral problems
- Nervous system difficulties such as seizures and brain abnormalities
- Other disorders, such as spina bifida and arthritis
There is no cure for FAS. Instead, treatment focuses on minimizing symptoms and improving quality of life.
Alcohol: No Safe Quantity
Every couple of months, a new study comes out showing benefits to drinking small quantities of alcohol. It’s easy for pregnant women who want to drink to latch onto these studies as an excuse to indulge the addiction. The truth, though, is that drinking does not benefit your baby in any way. Even more frightening, doctors have not identified a “safe” quantity of alcohol, nor a tipping point at which a mother’s drinking endangers her developing baby. Individual health factors, genetic legacy, and even your child’s genes can influence how and to what degree drinking affects his or her development in utero. This means that the best strategy for pregnant women is to avoid alcohol altogether.
Getting Sober When You’re Pregnant
During the first few weeks of development, your baby is more vulnerable to birth defects and genetic mutations that at any other time during pregnancy. Consequently, it’s best to quit drinking before you begin considering a pregnancy. If you’re already pregnant, though, you need to know that each day you spend drinking endangers your baby. You might feel guilty or ashamed of drinking while pregnant, but you’re not alone, and your addiction is not your fault. Addiction is a disease that renders the draw of alcohol nearly impossible to resist. While you might not have caused your addiction, you are responsible for how you deal with it, and the choices you make now may affect you and your baby for the rest of your lives. The time to get sober is now.
So what are your options? Pregnancy is already a stressful time, and trying to quit alcohol when you’re planning for a baby can be overwhelming and exhausting. Talk to your doctor before you begin any program. She can make recommendations based on your addiction history, pregnancy, and other personal factors. If you’re not sure where to seek help, you have a variety of options:
- Your doctor may be able to prescribe medications to reduce the side effects of withdrawal or interfere with your desire to drink. These drugs, though, may affect your pregnancy, so it’s vitally important to ensure your doctor knows you’re pregnant.
- Many pregnant women are able to get sober with the assistance of support groups. Alcoholics Anonymous is by far the most popular program. Some hospitals and doctor’s offices, though, sponsor support and discussion groups specifically for pregnant women, and you may find these groups more conducive to your needs.
- Inpatient and outpatient rehab facilities offer medical care, addiction counseling, and lots of support in a drug and alcohol-free environment. If you’re unsure about your ability to quit using or worried about your long-term health, rehab is often the best and most effective option.
- Therapy can help you find strategies for quitting alcohol, in addition to offering you support for any pregnancy-specific concerns you have.
Don’t waste your time beating yourself up over drinking. This will only make you want to drink more. Instead, pursue treatment immediately so you and your baby can get the healthy start you both need and deserve.