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Alcohol in the first few weeks of pregnancy

27 Nov, 2023

Alcohol in the first few weeks of pregnancy

By Glengarry Private Hospital

While the advice is to abstain completely from alcohol, what about the mothers who weren’t aware they were pregnant?

It’s a well-established fact that consuming alcohol in pregnancy can have a harmful effect on a developing baby. But what if you’ve had a few drinks (or a few too many) before realising you’re pregnant?

The rate of alcohol consumption during pregnancy is surprisingly high. A Western Australian study found that 59 per cent of women drank alcohol while pregnant, including 15 per cent who drank above the recommended guidelines during their first trimester. However, this same study found that 47 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned, so it could be that a significant portion of these women exposed their babies to alcohol inadvertently before they knew they were pregnant.

Why drinking alcohol is discouraged

It would help to revisit the reasons why alcohol is deemed so detrimental in the first place. Even though alcohol is readily accepted in society, it is still a toxic substance and technically a drug.

Alcohol is delivered through the placenta from the mother to the developing fetus, which does not have a fully developed liver to cope with it. The placenta does not filter out any toxicity or “water it down” before it reaches the baby.

This exposure can result in a number of harmful effects, which fall under an umbrella term called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). These include:

  • Brain damage
  • Birth defects
  • Poor growth
  • Developmental delay
  • Social and behavioural problems
  • Low IQ

These are often not detectable at birth and unfortunately can persist throughout the child’s life into adulthood.

Is there a safe intake of alcohol?

No, there’s not. The current Australian governmental and medical advice is this: for women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest option is to not drink alcohol.

You might think just one celebratory glass of champagne will be okay. Or, maybe it will be safe to have a regular wine in your third trimester now that the baby’s vital organs are mostly developed. But the problem, and what perhaps adds to the confusion, is that we simply don’t know at what point babies can be affected by alcohol. There is no known minimum threshold.

Some women who binge drink may go on to have healthy babies and others who only had a few glasses may not. And there is no guarantee that those who had a healthy baby despite drinking while pregnant will have an unharmed child next time.

What should you do if you’ve been drinking unaware?

If you are one of the many women who, to their shock and surprise, has discovered they’re pregnant and have been less than careful with alcohol, don’t be alarmed. This is a situation faced by many expectant mothers.

Stop drinking immediately and have a talk with your healthcare provider about your concerns. In most circumstances, the risk of adverse consequences from a little alcohol in early pregnancy — particularly very early on — is likely to be very small. It appears that the level of damage depends on how much you have been drinking in one sitting, how often and in what stage of your baby’s development.

Until better evidence is available, the advice from The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is that women should stay on the safe side and avoid alcohol during pregnancy.

If you have any concerns or individual questions about this topic, consult your GP, midwife or obstetrician.

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