Alcohol and pregnancy
Information and advice for mothers-to-be who have questions about alcohol during pregnancy.
- What does the government advise?
- Why drinking no alcohol is the safest option
- What is a unit of alcohol?
- How alcohol can affect your baby's development
- How alcohol can affect your baby's health
- How alcohol reduces your fertility
- Tips and advice
When you’re pregnant it can seem like you are being bombarded with information.
There are hundreds of leaflets, books, magazines and websites all about what to do and not to do for the next nine months of your life. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to go for trustworthy advice. This is especially true when it comes to knowing how much you can drink when you’re pregnant.
1. There is official government guidance on drinking while you’re pregnant
The Department of Health recommends that pregnant women, or women trying for a baby, should avoid alcohol altogether.
If they do choose to drink, to minimise risk to the baby, the government’s advice is to not have more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week, and not to get drunk.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is the independent organisation responsible for providing national guidance on promoting good health and preventing and treating ill health.
NICE additionally advises that the risks of miscarriage in the first three months of pregnancy mean that it is particularly important for women not to drink alcohol at all during that period (1). However, it is important to understand that drinking should be kept within the recommended guidelines throughout the whole pregnancy, not only for the first three months.
2. The healthiest option is not to drink when you’re pregnant
Scientists aren’t sure about the precise impact drinking small amounts of alcohol can have on unborn babies. They do know, however, that high alcohol consumption can be harmful during pregnancy (2).
So, you might decide that the safest option for you is to avoid alcohol for nine months. Of course, it’s your body and your choice.
If you do decide to drink when you’re pregnant, it is extremely important that you know what a unit of alcohol actually is. For example, a standard glass of 175ml wine contains more than two units. The government's lower risk guidelines recommend that men do not regularly exceed 3-4 units a day or 2-3 units a day for women.
3. Alcohol can affect the development of your unborn baby
Drinking any more than one to two units once or twice a week means you could be putting your baby’s health at serious risk.
When you drink, the alcohol crosses from your bloodstream through the placenta directly into your baby’s blood. How a baby will be affected depends on how much its mother drinks and the mother's metabolism. Evidence suggests that diet is also important, with poor maternal nutrition increasing the risk of harm to the unborn baby.
The potential harms of alcohol to a baby will also depend on the point during pregnancy at which it is consumed. However, alcohol can have a harmful effect on your baby's development at any stage. It is therefore important to stick to the guidelines throughout your pregnancy.
4. Drink heavily while you’re pregnant and it could affect your baby’s health
The more you drink the greater the risk you are taking with your baby’s health.
Miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, small birth weight, and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) are all associated with a mother’s binge drinking – consuming more than six units on one occasion whilst pregnant.
5. If you’re trying to conceive, think about how much you’re drinking
Official government guidance advises that if you’re trying to have a baby, you should stop drinking. This is to protect the baby in case you’re pregnant and don’t realise it.
However, alcohol doesn’t cause problems only once you are pregnant. There is good scientific evidence that alcohol can reduce fertility in both men and women (4) (5). It’s another reason why, if you’re trying to have a baby, both you and your partner might want to cut back on drinking.
Drinking over the guideline amounts also puts you at higher risk of miscarriage during the first trimester. A large study found a more than three times increased risk of miscarriage in women drinking just five or more units per week (6).
Staying in control
Here are three ways to keep your drinking under control if you’re pregnant or trying to have a baby.
- Stand firm. If you’re out with friends or colleagues, you may be under pressure to drink, especially if you haven’t announced your pregnancy yet. Tell them you’re driving, on a health kick, or simply stick to soft drinks.
- Start slowly. If you are trying to conceive, and are not able to stop drinking immediately, try cutting down your units gradually. Start off by reducing your drinking each day, and then try having a few alcohol-free days a week.
- Get support. Ask your partner to help you by cutting down their drinking as well. If you are trying to conceive this is vital, as drinking impairs sperm count and heavy drinking can cause temporary impotence.
Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes to your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way. Or talk to your midwife about alcohol and pregnancy.
You can find more information on the importance of having a healthy diet during pregnancy on the NHS Choices webpage.
If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0300 123 1110.
For more information and advice on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, go to the National Organisation on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome UK’s website www.nofas-uk.org or call their helpline on 020 8458 5951.
Health effects of alcohol
From the second you take your first sip, alcohol starts affecting your body and mind. Some of alcohol’s effects disappear overnight – while others can stay with you a lot longer, or indeed become permanent.
The effects of alcohol on your body
Use our interactive infographic to find out what effect alcohol has on your body.Health Effects
(1) (2) parliament.uk website. Alcohol guidelines: Eleventh Report of Session 2010–12”, House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 2011. Available at:http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmsctech/1536/1536.pdf
(3) NHS Choices website, ‘Alcohol and drugs during pregnancy’. The Information Standard member organisation. Page last reviewed: 22/5/2013. Available at:https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pages/alcohol-medicines-drugs-pregnant.aspx
(4) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Alcohol alert No. 26 PH 352 October 1994 ‘Alcohol and Hormones’. Available at:http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa26.htm
(5) Kold Jensen, T et al. 1998. ‘Does moderate alcohol consumption affect fertility?’ British Medical Journal no. 317, pp. 505-510. Available at:http://www.bmj.com/content/317/7157/505
(6) Kesmodel U, Wisborg K, Olsen S F, Henriksen T B, & Secher N J. (2002). Moderate alcohol intake in pregnancy and the risk of spontaneous abortion. Alcohol and Alcoholism 37(1)http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/37.1.87
Page updated: August 2015
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