pregnancy, drinking, alcohol in pregnancy

Is it safe to drink alcohol in pregnancy? We discuss government guidelines and the risks of drinking while pregnant.

There is a lot of controversy around whether it is safe to continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy and to help you make an informed decision, this article covers the following topics:

Dangers of drinking while pregnant
Units of alcohol
Tips on cutting down on alcohol in pregnancy
Getting support
Further information

The Chief Medical Officers for the UK recommend that if you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.

Dangers of drinking while pregnant

Heavy drinking can damage your baby as alcohol crosses the placenta quickly and easily. Babies cannot process alcohol well and it can affect the way they develop. You may find that while you are pregnant you don’t like the taste of alcohol, or feel that it’s safer not to have any alcohol at all to eliminate the risks.

Drinking too much alcohol during pregnancy on a regular basis can cause a collection of problems for the baby, known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children with FAS are short, have heart defects, unusual facial features and learning and behavioural difficulties. Even if you do not drink regularly, your baby may be affected if you binge drink.

How much alcohol during pregnancy is regarded as ‘too much’? The type of drink makes no difference, as it is the amount of alcohol in units that matters.

More than 6 units of alcohol a day would give you a very high chance of having a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. Drinking between 2 and 6 units a day may mean you give birth to a baby with a milder form of fetal alcohol syndrome.

"It is not yet clear from research exactly how much alcohol you can have before harm is caused to your baby."

Units of alcohol

1 unit of alcohol = 10g of alcohol which is measured as:

  • 25ml of a spirit such as vodka, gin, etc (1 ‘single’ pub measure)
  • around half a 175ml glass of of wine or champagne 
  • A half pint of 'weak' beer or lager
  • A quarter of a pint of ‘strong’ beer or cider
  • 55mls (1 sherry glass) of port, sherry or vermouth
  • 55ml of liqueur such as Baileys
  • 2/3 of a bottle of alcopop.

Remember that 'home' measures may be larger than these, so take that into consideration if you are trying to cut down on alcohol in pregnancy. 

Tips on cutting down on alcohol in pregnancy

If you do normally enjoy a drink and find it hard to resist the temptation then these ideas may help:

  • Quench your thirst with non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Sip your drink and put it down between sips.
  • Try alcohol-free or low-alcohol drinks.
  • Ask family and friends to support you by not offering to pour or prepare you drinks.
  • Make some of the days of the week alcohol free (and don’t drink more than 2 units on the other days).

If you drink a lot and are worried about how to cut down, then talk to your midwife or family doctor. Alternatively, you might prefer to call one of the helplines listed below.

Getting support

Confidential help and support is available from local counselling services (look in the telephone directory or contact Drinkline on 0800 917 8282). You can also talk to your midwife if you have any concerns about your drinking around the time of conception or in early pregnancy.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

NHS choices offers  information on alcohol and pregnancy. The Change for Life campaign also has a page on pregnancy and alcohol

Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you're worried about your drinking, you can call the free number 24 hours a day: 0800 917 8282

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a self-help group for anyone with alcohol problems. National Helpline number 0845 769 7555. There are also regular support groups.

Al-Anon Family Groups offer support and understanding to the families and friends of problem drinkers, whether they're still drinking or not.

Addaction is a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals and families with the effects of drug and alcohol misuse.

Adfam is a national charity working with families affected by drugs and alcohol. Adfam operates an online message board and database of local support groups.

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