Alcohol and pregnancy

Information and advice for mothers-to-be who have questions about alcohol during pregnancy.

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.

Read on to cut through the confusion and find out the key truths about alcohol and pregnancy.

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).

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.

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 into your baby’s blood. How a baby will be affected depends on how much its mother drinks and at what point in her pregnancy.

Damage to the organs and nervous system through heavy drinking is most likely to happen in the first three months. That’s because your baby’s liver doesn’t mature until the second half of pregnancy so it cannot process alcohol as well as you can (3).

Are you breastfeeding? Get some advice...

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.

What is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)?

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.

Staying in control

Here are three ways to keep your drinking under control if you’re pregnant or trying to have a baby.

  1. 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.
  2. Start slowly. If you are trying to conceive, 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.
  3. 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.

Further information

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.

If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0800 917 8282.

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 595.

Download this page as a printable factsheet »

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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.

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The effects of alcohol on your body

Use our interactive infographic to find out what effect alcohol has on your body.

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When should you talk to your child about alcohol?

The age of your child’s first drink is crucial, so it’s important to talk to them before they have their first experience with alcohol.

Read our simple guide

Should your child be drinking alcohol?

When it comes to the risks of children drinking alcohol, they can be both short or long-term.

Understand the risks

References

Page updated: March 2014