If you are struggling with alcoholism during pregnancy, you are certainly not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 1 in 9 pregnant women drink alcohol while about 4% binge drink. On top of that, 3.39 babies per every 1,000 born in the United States have Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS. This is a group of symptoms caused by exposure to alcohol while in the womb.
The best way to prevent any harm to yourself or your baby is to abstain from all alcohol use while pregnant. This is often not an option for some, as many women may have gotten pregnant while already addicted to alcohol. Drinking alcohol when expecting can be treacherous and even deadly.
What Happens If You Abuse Alcohol During Pregnancy?
Drinking alcohol while pregnant is extremely dangerous and poses a severe risk to both you and your unborn child. While the risk may seem low for women who have a glass of wine to induce labor (as the old wives’ tale goes), consuming any amount of alcohol when with child is not advised. The March of Dimes reports the following risks to your baby if you drink while pregnant:
It is possible for babies to develop birth defects related to their mother’s drinking while in utero. A birth defect occurs when the part of the body that is impacted changes in structure and/or function. The most common of birth defects related to alcohol abuse include the following:
Your baby’s heart begins beating 22 days after conception, so if alcohol is being continually consumed while the heart is developing, it can cause poor and/or abnormal development. Heart defects can occur in different areas of your baby’s heart, including the heart chambers, septum, valves, arteries, and veins. The majority of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or NAS, have heart defects.
The inner, middle, and outer ear of your baby can be affected by alcohol, usually resulting in some level of hearing loss. Babies with hearing loss can struggle with their speech and language, as well as have difficulty with social skills.
The entire ocular system of a developing baby in utero can be impacted by the presence of alcohol. The retinas and nerves can be affected negatively, leading to underdevelopment and growth deficiencies. As a result, babies exposed to alcohol in the womb can develop wide-set eyes, drooping of the eyes, crossed eyes, as well as problems seeing clearly.
Miscarriage and stillbirth
Millions of women in the United States experience a miscarriage. Many women even experience more than one. A miscarriage occurs when the baby dies in utero before 20 weeks of gestation. There is still more to be learned regarding the connection between alcohol and miscarriage, however, most studies support findings that state drinking in early pregnancy (even as little as 4 drinks per week) can result in miscarriage. Stillbirth occurs when the baby dies in the womb after 20 weeks of gestation. While most people consider early pregnancy to be more delicate than mid-to-late pregnancy, drinking after the 20-week mark is just as dangerous as drinking prior to it.
If you are drinking while pregnant, your baby can struggle to grow on pace with what is considered normal. This occurs for many reasons, including a lack of proper vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that encourage healthy growth. The size of the baby can be estimated during your pregnancy, but it is usually at the time of his/her birth when it can be determined just how small the baby is. Most babies who are impacted in this way will have low birth weight, which means the baby weighs less than 5 pounds 8 ounces at the time of birth. Risks associated with low birth rate can include low oxygen levels at birth, problems feeding, trouble staying warm, nervous, and respiratory system problems.
The risks associated with the combination of pregnancy and alcohol are not just limited to the baby. You, as the expectant mother, can also incur consequences related to your drinking while with child. Some of these risks can include the following:
- Dehydration — Alcohol dehydrates the body. If you are abusing alcohol regularly, chances are alcohol is your main beverage of choice as opposed to water, juice, or other hydrating fluids. There is also a chance that you are experiencing vomiting and/or diarrhea, both of which are also dehydrating. If you do not consume enough fluids, you can become dehydrated, which can lead to severe headaches, dizziness (which could result in a fall), and the shutdown of your vital organs and systems if left untreated.
- Poor nutrition — Some alcoholics find themselves adopting negative eating behaviors such as eating unhealthy food on a regular basis or eating at odds hours of the day or night. Other alcoholics might not eat much of anything at all, leading to malnourishment. If you are drinking while pregnant and are not maintaining a healthy diet, you can increase your risk for several health problems, including gestational diabetes. This not only complicates your health but can also affect the baby, too. Gestational diabetes can cause stillbirth, diabetes later in life, and obesity in your baby, while it can increase your risk of developing preeclampsia, a condition that raises blood pressure high enough to be potentially fatal for both mom and baby.
- Problems sleeping — Abusing alcohol can cause you to pass out at different times of the day or night, keep you up drinking into the early hours of the morning, and completely disrupt a regular sleeping pattern. While this might not seem too threatening, a lack of sleep can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to becoming infected with viruses, diseases, or other ailments that cause you sickness. Continuing to drink with a weak immune system puts your health on the line, meaning that the health of your baby is compromised, too.
- Physical injury — People who abuse alcohol are at greater risk for getting into a motor vehicle accident or suffering a physical injury due to being under the influence. Being pregnant will not safeguard you from getting hurt, but instead, it ups the ante. Not only are you at risk for harming yourself, but you increase your risk of harming your unborn baby. Something as seemingly minor as a small slip down the stairs can result in harm to you or your baby, never mind something more serious that occurs because you are intoxicated.
There is no doubt that even the healthiest, most cautious expectant moms can experience devastating consequences as a result of carrying and delivering a child. But when pregnant, a woman should do everything within her power to stay healthy to protect herself and her unborn child. If you are drinking when you are pregnant, you compromise your ability to stay healthy and pass that health on to your child. Keeping yourself well at this time is vital to both you and the baby’s wellbeing and futures.
How Early in Pregnancy Does Alcohol Affect the Baby?
Alcohol begins to affect a fetus as early as three weeks after fertilization has occurred. It is between week 3 and week 8 of the embryonic stage of pregnancy where the heart, brain, central nervous system, eyes, and limbs begin steadily developing. There is conflicting evidence that drinking during these very early weeks can be detrimental to your baby. Many studies show that if you drink at this time, the baby will likely not be impacted at all. This is a huge sigh of relief for some women, as they may not even know they are pregnant during this time. However, some studies have shown that drinking (especially heavily) within these early weeks can influence how vital organs and systems develop.
It is important to remember that the entire time you are pregnant, your baby is developing. Up until the day he or she is born, development is occurring. Therefore, it is unsafe to consume alcohol when pregnant, regardless of what trimester you may be in.
Consequences of Drinking While Pregnant
If you are drinking while pregnant, your problems do not stop once you deliver your baby. In many cases where mothers abuse alcohol while pregnant, their babies suffer from physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive challenges starting from day one and possibly lasting for their lifetime. Mothers also go on to experience the consequences of their drinking, too.
Some of the greatest consequences associated with drinking while pregnant include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The baby requiring immediate surgery when born or in the near future to correct complications caused by one or more birth defects
- Needing additional supports in school-aged children who were born to a mother who abused alcohol while pregnant, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, or special education classes
- Legal repercussions that can include loss of custody of the baby
- Needing to attend an addiction treatment program in the first weeks and/or months of the baby’s life, thus missing out on several firsts and bonding time
- Financial distress resulting from excessive spending on alcohol, making it more difficult to support the baby’s needs
- Being unable to take the baby home right away, as he or she may need to stay in the hospital until NAS symptoms cease
The consequences are unlimited when it comes to drinking while pregnant. The most important thing a woman can do upon learning that she is pregnant is to stop drinking. Those women who are addicted to alcohol should reach out for professional detox services to avoid suffering complications from withdrawing from alcohol.
Signs of Alcoholism During Pregnancy
Women who are struggling with alcoholism while pregnant can exhibit a number of signs that they are not abstaining from alcohol, such as:
- Not attending prenatal appointments, canceling them, or pushing them off in order to avoid being evaluated by a medical professional
- Behaving recklessly for a pregnant woman, such as not taking care of themselves, putting themselves in dangerous situations, or doing things that could jeopardize the health of their baby or themselves
- Making regular efforts to downplay how much alcohol they are drinking or how drinking some while pregnant is not that serious
- Not taking any prenatal vitamins or supplements that would otherwise help support the baby’s growth and overall health
Just because a woman is pregnant does not mean that all of the signs of alcoholism she displays will be specific to her pregnancy. She can also experience some of the most common signs of alcoholism, including:
- Not tending to daily responsibilities at work and/or home
- Socially isolating herself from loved ones
- Showing little interest in activities and hobbies that she once enjoyed
- Being preoccupied with drinking and how to obtain and use more alcohol
- Disregard for personal hygiene, often leading to unwashed clothing, unbrushed teeth and hair, and a generally disheveled appearance
- Skipping out on commitments in order to drink
- Spending lots of time recovering from drinking the day/night before (e.g. sleeping a lot, tending to headaches and nausea, etc.)
Each person who experiences alcoholism, pregnant or not, is going to have his or her own unique symptoms to display. Women who are pregnant are more likely to show some of these more specific symptoms, but can also present with the traditional symptoms of alcoholism.
Rehab for Pregnant Women
If you are pregnant and want to stop drinking, there is specialized treatment available for you. For starters, if you are dependent on alcohol, meaning that you cannot cut back or stop cold turkey without experiencing withdrawal symptoms, then your journey towards recovery will most likely begin with detox. Thankfully, you can receive care for yourself and your baby while detoxing, as medical professionals will work to ensure that you and your baby are as healthy as possible during this process. It is best practice to seek professional detox when addicted to alcohol because suddenly withdrawing from this substance can be fatal — pregnant or not.
The core of rehab for pregnant women is rooted in therapy. Uncovering the driving forces behind your drinking can help you address the issues that are keeping you from living a healthy life. Depending on what your needs are, you may benefit from several different evidence-based therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing to individual therapy and group counseling. When in rehab, your treatment plan will be developed to reflect your needs and goals.
Most rehabs offer aftercare services to clients, allowing you to remain connected to the people who have helped you along the way and maintain your recovery.
Are You Pregnant and Need Help?
If you are pregnant and need help to stop drinking, do not waste another second. Contact us right now to learn more about how we can help you get healthy for yourself and your unborn baby.
Michelle Rosenker is a content writer for JourneyPure where she gets to exercise her journalistic skills by working with different addiction treatment centers nationwide. She has 10 years of experience in the field of addiction treatment and mental health and has written content for some of the country’s most prominent treatment centers and behavioral hospitals. Through her writing, Michelle is proud to continually raise awareness about the disease of addiction and share hope for the future. She lives next to the ocean in Massachusetts with her husband, two young children, and faithful dog.