The Risks of Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy

Ideally, pregnancy should be joyful and exciting. In many cases, however, addiction compromises the health and well-being of women and their fetuses. Chemical dependency is chronic, with all sorts of dangerous effects. The likelihood of mental health issues, which often accompany addiction, further complicate matters.

“Women planning to become pregnant and who are pregnant are encouraged by medical professionals to eat well, seek regular care, and generally maintain healthy lifestyles.”

Even when pregnant women don’t drink, but their partners do, they increase the risks of having babies with intellectual, mental, and physical problems. Alcohol harms sperm cells as well, which means it affects fertilized embryos.

Every substance a pregnant woman consumes can impact the fetus. Alcohol, just like food and drugs, is transferred through the placenta – the organ sending oxygen and nutrition to the fetus. Alcohol contains teratogen, which is proven to impede human development. When it is transferred to a fetus – obviously much smaller than an adult – the substance breaks down far more slowly than it would in a grown person. The alcohol remains in the fetus’ blood for a long time, further exacerbating the chances of irreversible harm.

Therefore, women planning to become pregnant and who are pregnant are encouraged by medical professionals to eat well, seek regular care, and generally maintain healthy lifestyles that include prenatal vitamins, light exercise, and lots of rest. Those who are already addicted are advised to seek immediate treatment.

Rehab services help pregnant individuals recover from addiction and prevent or minimize harm to their fetuses. There may be devastating consequences otherwise. In 2002, for instance, there were approximately 5,000 babies born dependent on drugs or alcohol in the U.S. By 2013, that number was 27,000.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can be devastating

The Potential Outcomes of Drinking While Pregnant

Throughout the course of a pregnancy, the fetus is in a perpetual state of development. In the first month, the central nervous system, heart, legs, arms, and eyes form. The brain starts to grow around week three as well. Later in the third trimester, the fetus’ development becomes more rapid. The sooner pregnant women stop drinking (and in many cases they drink before they know they are pregnant), the better.

There is still a lot to learn about the implications of drinking while pregnant, but extensive research has already unveiled a great deal of information. Here are some of the many complications addiction creates:

  • Miscarriage and Stillbirth: A miscarriage is the loss of a pregnancy prior to the 24th week of gestation. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of pregnancies in the United States culminate in miscarriage. These losses result from various health problems like infections, diseases, chromosomal abnormalities, eating disorders, and alcohol and drug abuse. Stillbirth refers to the delivery of a fetus showing no signs of life, after week 24. It’s usually caused by placental irregularities, but can also be caused by drug and alcohol intake.
  • Placental Abruption: When the placenta separates from the uterus before the onset of labor, placental abruption occurs. It is commonly the result of alcohol and drug use, and occasionally happens due to impact (such as car accidents and falls) as well. Though placental abruption is rarely fatal to the fetus or the pregnant woman, it can trigger developmental problems in the baby.
  • Premature Labor and Premature Birth: Infants delivered prior to the 37th weeks of pregnancy are considered premature. Early labor results from complications like heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and addiction. Premature babies often have trouble breathing, drinking, and maintaining consistent body temperature. They have underdeveloped organs, and typically require weeks – sometimes months – of intensive medical care.
  • Fetal Alcohol Disorders: Fetal alcohol disorders exist on a spectrum. They all culminate from the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. If a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol moves through the placenta and the umbilical cord to the fetus. These disorders can occur at any point during pregnancy, and no amount of alcohol has been proven safe to drink while pregnant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 0.2 to 1.5 newborns out of 1,000 suffer from fetal alcohol disorders. Two to five percent of children throughout the country live with these syndromes.
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): SIDS is the sudden and unexpected death of a baby under 12 months old. Autopsies indicate no explainable reasons for these deaths, though babies born to addicted mothers die of SIDS at rates higher than those whose mothers did not abuse substances during pregnancy.
  • Microcephaly: Microcephaly is an abnormally small circumference of the head. It indicates incorrect development of an infant’s brain. The skull and the brain grow at the same time, so the small size of the skull likely means the brain did not form properly in utero.
  • Low Birth Weight: An infant born less than five pounds, eight ounces, is considered to have low birth weight. Roughly eight percent of all babies are born with low weight, some of whom are healthy. Others, however, suffer from heart problems, difficulty breathing, intestinal troubles, vision issues, and brain bleeding. Low birth weight has also been connected to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity later in life.
  • Developmental and Behavioral Problems: Drinking while pregnant risks damage to an infant’s central nervous system, paving the way for behavioral issues as well as poor academic performance in the future. Children influenced by alcohol encounter language and speech delays, hyperactivity, and low IQ.

Alcoholism, Pregnancy, and Co-Occurring Conditions

Addiction is clearly dangerous for women and their babies. Fetal alcohol syndromes cannot be cured, though early intervention can minimize damage. Alcohol dependency leads to high blood pressure, liver and kidney damage, bone loss, heightened risk of cancer, weakened immune system, and premature birth in pregnant women. Further risks to infants include:

  • Birth defects in facial features, kidneys, heart, bones, and hearing.
  • Negative impact on external genitalia, teeth, hearing, eventual height, and even the palate.
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders that involve problems learning, poor judgment and impulse control, and trouble paying attention.

Mental health diagnoses further complicate the negative impact of addiction on pregnancy. Many – if not most – people struggling with alcoholism also suffer from emotional or personality disorders. For the best possible treatment, addicted individuals should be screened for potential mental health problems.

Learn more about dual-diagnosis.

Furthermore, research suggests that women are more susceptible to psychological issues when they are pregnant. Consider the example of depression. Thirteen to 17 percent of people encounter depression when they are pregnant. The potential threats include inadequate nutrition, suicidality, and thoughts of harming the fetus. One study even found that babies of depressed mothers are at heightened risk of early development issues.

Not surprisingly, postpartum depression is also a big concern for pregnant women. The condition extends far beyond the normal fluctuations in mood that often occur in the days and weeks following childbirth. Substance abuse, as well as other psychological troubles, can amplify postpartum depression.

Panic and eating disorders are worth mention as well. There is little research available on the intersection of panic disorders and pregnancy, but what does exist suggests that high anxiety could lead to decreased blood flow to a fetus and potentially limit brain development. The consequences of eating disorders during pregnancy are similarly alarming. They include breathing problems for the fetus, dehydration, gestational diabetes, premature birth, and low birth weight.

Treatment Options for Pregnant Women

There are many rehab options for women who are pregnant and dependent on alcohol. Rehab-Finder.Org has all the resources needed to find the best possibilities. People who contact 877-251-4813 will be connected to health-care providers equipped for thorough assessments of addiction, mental health, and pregnancy status.

For example, comprehensive education is a powerful treatment for women who drink during pregnancy. Many people do not fully understand the implications of doing so, nor do they realize the availability of specialized care. They can – and should – be carefully monitored while detoxing to prevent seizures and mitigate other withdrawal symptoms. Pregnant women can then be enrolled in evidence-based therapy as well as relevant support groups.

Behavioral therapy is recommended by professionals when mental health diagnoses accompany alcoholism. Experts know which medications are harmful to fetuses, and will make appropriate recommendations. These individuals will also observe the effectiveness of prescribed medicines, and warn patients about the dangers of abruptly quitting their meds. Pregnant women with eating disorders benefit from tailored treatment too. They can be referred to nutritionists or dieticians in addition to informed therapists.

Approximately 10 percent of pregnant people drink alcohol. About three percent of them report binge-drinking behavior. If you or someone you care about can be counted among either of these numbers, contact Rehab-Finder.Org at 877-251-4813 for assistance.

The Legal Ramifications of Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy

It’s imperative that pregnant women who are chemically dependent feel safe to seek treatment without fear for legal consequences. The American Psychiatric Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine argue against incarcerating pregnant and addicted individuals.

In fact, a lot of legal cases against dependent, pregnant women have been dismissed due to unconstitutionality. Some cases have stuck, however, and some states do allow the prosecution of women charged with drug and alcohol use while pregnant. Ultimately, criminal prosecution has neither shown to be an effective response to addiction – nor does it positively affect the well-being of mothers and children.

The Basics of Alcohol Intake

To fully understand the dangers of alcoholism during pregnancy, it’s important to be informed about the general effects of the substance on the body. Women tend to be more sensitive to alcohol than men, and intoxication causes impaired judgment and attention, flushed skin, decreased muscle control and reflexes, slurred speech, blurred vision, vomiting, and a staggering gait. Severe intoxication can cause blackouts, leaving people with no memory of their actions while drinking. Worst-case scenarios include coma and death.

“Recovery begins with the journey through the withdrawal process. Care must continue long after this period for rehabilitation to be successful.”

An individual who weighs approximately 150 pounds requires about one hour to process up to 10 grams of alcohol (that’s roughly two-thirds of alcohol in most drinks). This rate remains the same, regardless of the overall amount of alcohol (or food or other substances) consumed.

The hangover phase of drinking typically begins between eight and 12 hours after drinking. The symptoms are shakiness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and headache. In large part, hangovers are created by acetaldehyde (a chemical produced as the liver processes alcohol) – though hormonal fluctuations and dehydration are factors too.

Heavy alcohol intake isn’t just harmful to pregnancy. It is connected to crime, injuries, traffic fatalities, violence, and more. Intoxicated individuals that experience low body temperature, slow or labored breathing, clammy skin, and incontinence may have acute alcohol poisoning. This condition can be fatal and requires immediate medical attention.

Many alcohol-related problems result from problem drinking, which is four times as prevalent as dependency. Physical addiction is different. It involves a tolerance of the substance, along with withdrawal symptoms when alcohol intake ceases. Alcoholics going through withdrawal experience nausea, tremors, sleeplessness, and seizures. These effects can begin within a few hours of the last drink, and last up to a week. Detox sometimes involves delirium tremens as well, causing extreme confusion, racing heart, fever, and hallucinations. Severe withdrawal symptoms can be deadly if not treated.

Recovery begins with the journey through the withdrawal process. Care must continue long after this period for rehabilitation to be successful, however. Recovering alcoholics often crave the substance long after they stop drinking, and need lots of support to prevent relapse. Options include inpatient programs, community groups, individual therapy, medications, and various self-care strategies.

Everyone is different, so each person affected by alcoholism requires his or her own form of care. What works for one individual may not work for the next, and RehabFinder.Org is here to help.

Even if pregnancy is a factor, there is an opportunity for you to secure a sober and healthy future. Call 877-251-4813 to explore your options for specialized care and get started on the road to recovery.

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