Alcohol and pregnancy
Alcohol is a substance that is known to adversely affect foetal development and cause birth defects and brain damage in unborn babies. Alcohol crosses the placenta freely and can be found in equivalent concentrations in foetal blood circulation to that of the mother.
Researchers do not know how much alcohol, if any, is safe to drink during pregnancy and there is also no safe time for consuming alcohol. What they do know is the risk of damage to the baby increases the more you drink, and that binge drinking is especially harmful.
Even small amounts of alcohol may cause changes to the developing brain so abstinence is the safest choice for a healthy pregnancy.
Women and alcohol
Research has shown that alcohol affects women differently than men.
Higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC): If a man and a woman drink exactly the same amount of alcohol, the woman will almost always have a higher BAC. One reason is that a woman's body contains more fatty tissue and less water than a man's body and women are often smaller than men.
Health problems: Women may develop liver damage and other health problems at lower levels of alcohol consumption than men. Women who drink alcohol are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer and gynaecological problems than women who don't drink.
Hormonal differences: Some research suggests that a woman's reaction to alcohol may vary at different stages of her menstrual cycle, due to changes in hormone levels. Women who use the contraceptive pill may take longer to get rid of alcohol in their bodies than women who do not.
For all these reasons, health authorities recommend that women should drink less alcohol than men.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Alcohol consumed during pregnancy crosses the placenta to the baby. It can cause problems in pregnancy, such as bleeding, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth.
There is evidence to suggest that if a pregnant woman drinks two or more standard drinks a day the baby can be affected and grow more slowly. Babies born of women who are heavily dependent on alcohol can suffer from withdrawal symptoms after birth; have poor coordination and movement, and be diagnosed with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Babies with FAS may be born with facial defects and physical and intellectual disability.
The World Health Organisation suggests there is no safe level of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, and recommends that the safest approach for pregnant women is not to consume any alcohol at all.
There is evidence to suggest that alcohol can change the smell of breast milk, reduce supply and have a mildly sedative effect on the baby. During the first twelve months of a baby's life, alcohol can cause damage to the developing brain. For women who are breastfeeding it is better to avoid consumption of alcohol as much as possible.
See your doctor or other health professional if you are drinking while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Sources of information:
National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
DrugInfo Clearinghouse - Australian Drug Foundation
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