Pregnancy and alcohol

Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause long-term harm to your unborn baby’s physical growth and mental development. By giving up alcohol, you protect your unborn baby from harm. Even drinking small amounts when you are pregnant puts your baby at risk. The more alcohol you drink, the greater the risk.

Effects of alcohol before conception

Couples who want to conceive should avoid alcohol as it can reduce fertility. A woman who takes five drinks or less a week can find it difficult to conceive.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy

Alcohol is a toxic substance. A woman’s liver takes about 90 minutes to break down one unit of alcohol.

When you drink alcohol in pregnancy, your unborn child also drinks. The alcohol passes from your bloodstream through your placenta into your baby’s bloodstream. Your placenta is not a filter. Your unborn baby doesn't have a developed liver to process alcohol.

In early pregnancy, drinking heavily or binge drinking can increase the risk of miscarriage.

How alcohol affects an unborn child

Medical guidelines advise pregnant women not to drink alcohol. A baby’s heart, brain and skeleton are formed in the first 10 to 50 days of pregnancy. If you’re pregnant and drink alcohol, this can affect:

  • the way your baby develops in the womb
  • your baby’s health at birth
  • your baby’s vulnerability to illness in infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood
  • your child’s ability to learn

Drinking in pregnancy increases the risk of your child having foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). These conditions are 100 per cent preventable if you don’t drink alcohol while you’re pregnant.

Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)

A child born with FAS was exposed to high levels of alcohol throughout the pregnancy.

The child can experience:

  • growth problems
  • facial defects
  • life-long learning problems
  • behavioural problems

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

A child with FASD might look healthy, but has hidden symptoms including:

  • problems with their sight 
  • problems with their hearing
  • difficulty learning
  • problems paying attention and following simple instructions
  • difficulty getting along with people
  • difficulty controlling their behaviour

Children born with FASD may need medical care all their lives and special educational support.

Drinking heavily during pregnancy can also increase the chances of complications at childbirth and the risk of premature delivery, miscarriage and stillbirth.

Help to stop drinking

If you are concerned about your drinking while pregnant, you should ask for help and advice from:

  • your midwife
  • your obstetrician
  • your GP
  • your health visitor

You can also get confidential help and support from counselling services in your area.

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)

If you drink alcohol when you have a young child, it isn’t safe to sleep beside the child. By drinking two units of alcohol, you increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) due to rolling over and smothering the child.

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