Alcohol, pregnancy and breastfeeding

Alcohol and pregnancy

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, lower birth weight, stillbirth, and premature birth. Alcohol can also harm the development of the baby’s brain and physical growth and some babies may be born with a condition known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). A baby born with FASD may have birth defects and facial abnormalities. More often a child with FASD can have lifelong problems with learning, growth, behaviour, memory, language, communication and everyday living.

After birth, the babies of alcohol dependent mothers can suffer withdrawal symptoms, including tremors, irritability and fits. There is no known safe level of drinking during pregnancy, and a pregnant woman or a woman planning a pregnancy, is advised not to drink alcohol.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

Alcohol is a known teratogen – a toxic substance that interferes with the development of the unborn child. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term used for a range of conditions resulting from alcohol exposure in-utero including: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), Alcohol Related Birth Defects, and Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Features of FASD include: poor growth, facial abnormalities, structural damage to the central nervous system, neurological damage, reduced cognitive function, impaired ability to plan and organise, developmental delay, learning or intellectual disability.

Many of the adverse effects from alcohol consumption in pregnancy persist over time and result in signifcant challenges in adulthood. Studies that follow similarly-affected individuals throughout their lives have reported a range of adverse life outcomes including disrupted education and persistent behavioural and mental health problems. Individuals with FASD are at increased risk of problems in adulthood classifed as ‘secondary disabilities’ including anxiety and depression, substance use disorders, criminal justice involvement, and education and employment difculties.

Alcohol and breastfeeding

Alcohol in the mother’s bloodstream passes into breast milk. It can reduce the milk supply, and can cause irritability, poor feeding, sleep disturbance, and poor psychomotor development in the baby. As breastfeeding has many advantages for a young baby, it is recommended that a mother who does choose to drink should continue to breastfeed her baby, but keep her alcohol consumption to a low level, not drink before feeding the baby, and not drink at all until the baby is one month old. Expressing milk before drinking may be an option.