The UK Chief Medical Officers’ advice to women is:
“Women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should avoid alcohol altogether. However, if they do choose to drink, to minimise the risk to the baby, we recommend they should not drink more than one or two units once or twice a week and should not get drunk.” The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which advises healthcare professionals (GPs and nurses), says:
- Pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant should be advised not to drink alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy, because there may be an increased risk of miscarriage.
- Women should be advised that if they choose to drink alcohol while they are pregnant, they should drink no more than one or two units of alcohol, once or twice a week. There is uncertainty about how much alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy, but if a low level is consumed there is no evidence of harm to an unborn baby.
- Women should be advised not get to drunk or binge drink (drinking more than 7.5 UK units of alcohol on a single occasion) while they are pregnant, because this can harm their unborn baby.
- If women want to avoid all possible alcohol-related risks, they should not drink alcohol during pregnancy, as the evidence on this is limited.
What is a unit of alcohol?
One unit of alcohol is about half a pint of bitter or ordinary lager (ABV [alcohol by volume] 4.5%), or a single measure of spirits (25ml). However, a 175ml glass of wine (12% ABV) is 2.1 units and a pint of strong beer (ABV 5.2%) is 3 units. The number of units in particular drinks are different, depending on the strength of the alcohol in them and the volume of the drink.
How does alcohol affect my unborn baby?
If you drink alcohol when you’re pregnant, the alcohol crosses the placenta into the bloodstream of the unborn baby and could interfere with how it grows and develops.
Alcohol can cause damage to an unborn baby at all stages of pregnancy. Drinking more than the recommended amount while pregnant has been associated with:
- the way your baby develops in the womb – in particular, the way your baby’s brain develops
- the way your baby grows in the womb, by causing the placenta not to work as well as it should – this is known as foetal growth restriction
- increased risk of a stillbirth
- increased risk of premature labour
- your baby being more prone to illness in infancy, childhood and as an adult
- learning and behavioural disorders
Foetal Alcohol Syndrome
The most severe of the alcohol-related conditions (which is normally due to heavy drinking in pregnancy) is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). It causes:
- problems with physical and emotional development
- hyperactivity and poor attention span
- poor short-term memory
A wider range of intellectual and physical disabilities than those seen in FAS and partial FAS-like syndromes occur in babies born to mothers who drank alcohol at some point during their pregnancy. These are commonly grouped together under the umbrella term “Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs)”. While the effects attributed to alcohol are still more common in heavier drinkers, they seem to happen at much lower drinking levels than seen in those with FAS.
Page last reviewed: 13/07/2014. By NHS Choices
Copyright © 2015 NHS Choices