A pregnant woman's alcohol use carries considerable risk. Even moderate use of alcohol has been linked to an increase in the chance of miscarriage. Excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy can result in abnormalities in the baby. Chronic use of alcohol during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, which is abnormal fetal development.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
Fetal alcohol syndrome is a collection of problems that affect children born to women who drink excessive amounts of alcohol during pregnancy. It is characterized by growth retardation before and after birth. Defects in the heart and limbs, and unusual facial characteristics, such as a short, upturned nose, a flat upper jawbone and "different" eyes, have also been seen in FAS children. These children may also have behavioral problems, impaired speech and impaired use of joints and muscles.
For a definite diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome, specific criteria must be met. The mother-to-be must have a history of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The baby must exhibit three medical criteria—abnormalities of the face or skull, growth retardation and damage to the central nervous system, usually a mental deficiency.
Fetal Alcohol Exposure (FAE)
If the mother's consumption of alcohol cannot be proved as described above, we generally refer to the condition as FAE or fetal alcohol exposure. A baby with a mild birth defect may be diagnosed with FAE if the mother had anything to drink during pregnancy.
There is a lot of disagreement about whether it is OK for women to have a "social" or occasional glass of alcohol during pregnancy because we don't know what is a "safe" level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. I recommend not drinking any alcohol during pregnancy. Why take the risk?
The possibility of birth defects is the reason alcoholic beverages carry warning labels. The warning advises women to avoid alcohol during pregnancy because of the possibility of causing problems in the fetus, including FAS and FAE.
Occasional Drink before Pregnancy
I am frequently asked if it's OK for women to have an occasional alcoholic beverage during the time they are trying to conceive a baby. If you're trying to get pregnant, you probably won't know exactly when you do conceive. Why take chances? It's a good idea to stop drinking while you're trying to conceive—that way you'll know you've avoided any problems of this type.
Some researchers believe heavy alcohol consumption by the baby's father close to the time of conception may result in FAS in the baby. Alcohol intake by the father has also been linked to intrauterine-growth retardation.
Drugs and Alcohol Together
If drugs are taken with alcohol, it increases the chance of damaging the fetus. Drugs that cause the greatest concern include analgesics, antidepressants and anticonvulsants.
Be very careful about substances you use that may contain alcohol. Over-the-counter cough medicines and cold remedies often contain alcohol—as much as 25%!