A pregnant woman sitting on a couch with a glass of wine in front of her.

Wine During Pregnancy: Facts, Risks & Myths Debunked

A glass of red wine while pregnant is okay, right? We do not think so.

Drinking wine can be very relaxing and comforting. But is it safe to do so while you’re pregnant? The answer is no. Wine during pregnancy can cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs).

What are FASDs?

FASDs are physical, intellectual, and behavioral disabilities that may last the entire lifetime of the child. In fact, maternal alcohol use is one of the leading causes of intellectual disability in babies. It also increases the likelihood of a miscarriage or stillbirth. The risk is great because the placental barrier does not block alcohol: it passes freely through the placenta and the umbilical cord to reach the baby.

Some of the characteristics children with FASDs may have are poor coordination, abnormal facial features, poor memory, vision and hearing disabilities, heart or kidney problems, low IQ, and speech delays.

When Should You Stop Consuming Alcohol?

The simple answer: as soon as you find out you are pregnant. Even in the first few weeks of pregnancy, it’s not safe to partake in any form of alcohol use, as it may still cause FASDs. This is why it’s recommended that if you’re actively trying to have a baby or sexually active without being on birth control, you should completely avoid any form of drinking, whether or not you know if conception has occurred.

There is no known safe amount or safe time to drink wine/alcohol during pregnancy. It may seem like a glass of wine is safer than a can of beer, but this isn’t so. According to the CDC (Center For Disease Control And Prevention), “ A 5-ounce glass of  white wine during pregnancy has the same amount of alcohol as a 12-ounce can of beer or a 1.5-ounce shot of straight liquor.” This means that all forms of alcohol are just as harmful as the others.

Wine and Pregnancy Myths

Myth: I’m on vacation or at a special occasion, it should be perfectly fine to at least have a few celebratory sips.

Unfortunately, no matter how much we wish it so, the human body cannot discern between regular days and holidays/special occasions. Alcohol does not magically lose its toxicity in utero because it happens to be New Year’s Eve.

The negative effects of prenatal alcohol exposure are primarily on the developing baby (although the mother may have a miscarriage which could be dangerous to her health). The rule to stay away from any kind of alcoholic drink isn’t to judge your lifestyle choices or to stop you from having fun. Basically, it’s to make sure your baby is as healthy as possible when it’s born.

Pregnant woman drinking water from a plastic bottle.

Myth: A single glass of wine is not enough to expose the fetus to alcohol in the womb.

It is very important to note that NO amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. Whether or not you consider it a negligible or tiny amount, any alcohol you consume will still be passed to your baby and may result in the development of FASDs. It may be a bit tough, but learning to firmly say no to having even a small glass of wine can make all the difference.

Myth: It’s better to drink wine than be on cocaine or heroin while pregnant.

Alcohol, including wine, causes more damage to the developing baby than many illicit drugs.  The Institute of Medicine says, “Of all the substances of abuse (including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana), alcohol produces by far the most serious neurobehavioral effects in the fetus.” In any case, it shouldn’t matter which is “better” as they are all harmful in pregnancy.

Myth: You have to be an alcoholic to drink enough to cause real damage.

While it’s true that a pregnant woman suffering from alcoholism puts her baby at a much greater risk of developing FASDs than a mother engaging in casual or moderate drinking, the medical evidence is clear: Do not consume any alcohol while you’re pregnant. Every woman and fetus will have different reactions, so non-alcoholics can still deliver babies with significant disorders caused by alcohol exposure.

Myth: Alcohol exposure in utero must cause physical deformities. If the baby looks normal, then it can’t have been affected.

The truth is that only babies who were exposed to alcohol in the womb within a specific period of time will manifest physical deformities. Many children with disabilities from prenatal alcohol exposure have no physical birth defects, just cognitive and/or behavioral ones.

Only about 10% of children with FASDs are ever diagnosed. This is largely due to the fact that its symptoms may sometimes be very subtle and shared with many other conditions/disorders too. It is also made worse by the fact that the features of FASDs morph with age, making a diagnosis of adults and adolescents tougher.

A doctor conducting examination on a pregnant woman's baby bump.

Myth: It is inappropriate for a doctor or any other medical personnel to give input on a woman’s lifestyle choices by advising her not to drink throughout pregnancy or when she may become pregnant.

Indeed, it’s quite the opposite when viewed rightly. Doctors have an ethical duty to inform and advise pregnant women on the possible and serious side effects of drinking while pregnant, in a non-judgmental manner. If necessary, as in the case of alcoholics who may need help to stop drinking, an appropriate intervention may be suggested.

Almost 50% of pregnancies in the U.S are unintended, making it entirely possible that by the time a woman first learns about prenatal alcohol exposure and FASDs, she is already pregnant. At this point, abstaining from alcohol as early as possible increases the chances that her baby will be unharmed by its effects.

While there is currently no federal law that restricts women from drinking while pregnant, some states have regulations to the effect that substance abuse during pregnancy is child abuse. The National Organization On Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS)  and ACOG frown on this “and are strongly opposed to the criminalization of mothers who drank during pregnancy.”

Authoritative research has also shown that genetics does play a part in the development of FASDs. This means that some mothers and fetuses have a particular genetic predisposition to these negative effects. Unfortunately, this aspect is currently poorly understood by scientists, making it all the more imperative for complete abstinence.

Wine & Pregnancy Studies

There are several research studies published by scientists from the Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (CIFASD), the world’s leading FASD research consortium, that have examined moderate prenatal alcohol exposure.

Here’s what some other solid published studies concluded:

    1. The University of Queensland, 2013: “Women who regularly drink as little as two glasses of wine per drinking session while pregnant can adversely impact their child’s results at school.”
    2. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2012. “Reduced birth length and weight, microcephaly, smooth philtrum, and thin vermillion border are associated with specific gestational timing of prenatal alcohol exposure and are dose-related without evidence of a threshold. Women should continue to be advised to abstain from alcohol consumption from conception throughout pregnancy.”
    3. International Journal of Epidemiology, 2012: “Even low amounts of alcohol consumption during early pregnancy increased the risk of spontaneous abortion substantially.”
    4. Alcohol Research & Health2011: “Drinking at low to moderate levels during pregnancy is associated with miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm delivery, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).”
    5. Alcohol, Health, and Research World, 1997:  “Even a small amount of alcohol may affect child development. Therefore, the best policy continues to be abstinence during pregnancy”

Is Wine Safe During Pregnancy? Here’s What The Experts Say

Dr. Kenneth Jones – Researcher who co-discovered “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome” in 1973

“When talking about the prenatal effects of alcohol we usually think exclusively about the dose, the strength, and the timing of alcohol exposure. However, perhaps even more important are factors involving the mother – her genetic background and nutritional status to name just two. Based on those maternal factors, what may be a completely safe amount of alcohol for one woman to drink during her pregnancy may be a serious problem for another woman’s developing fetus. Without knowing those genetic and nutritional factors that are critically involved with the way a woman metabolizes alcohol, it is not possible to make any generalizations about a “safe” amount of alcohol during pregnancy. What may be” safe” for one woman may be “devastating” for another woman’s unborn baby.”

Dr. Michael Charness – Harvard Medical School:

“Moderate levels of alcohol have been shown to disrupt the activity of a number of molecules that are critical for normal brain development.  One such example, the L1 cell adhesion molecule, guides the migration of brain cells and the formation of connections between brain cells. Children with mutations in the L1 gene have developmental disabilities and brain malformations, and, importantly, the function of the L1 molecule is also disrupted by concentrations of alcohol that a woman would have in her blood after a single drink. These kinds of experiments support the view that women who are pregnant or trying to conceive would be safer to abstain from alcohol than to engage in even occasional light drinking.

Absence of proof is not proof of absence. The absence of evidence for developmental abnormalities in women who drink small amounts occasionally during pregnancy does not prove that light drinking is safe. Clinical studies do not have the power to detect small effects of alcohol on brain development, and even significant effects might be missed if the wrong test is used or if testing is conducted at the wrong developmental period. More practically, it is impossible to assure a mother who drinks lightly during pregnancy that her drinking did not result in a small drop in the IQ of her child. Light drinking is not essential to the health or well-being of a pregnant woman, so why take a chance?”

The Reality

If a pregnant woman is already drinking alcohol, it’s never too late to stop and possibly prevent any disorders in her baby, if they haven’t yet developed.

A great resource for keeping a baby safe from cradle to college is umbilical cord blood and tissue banking. Stem cells collected and preserved from the umbilical cord can treat more than 80 conditions now and are being used in countless clinical trials as a treatment option for some of the most prominent conditions we know, such as diabetes and heart disease.

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