Published on March 22nd, 2020
Whether you’re having a night on the town with your girlfriends or an anniversary dinner with your honey, there are some occasions that just call for a glass of wine. You might’ve heard mixed things when it comes to drinking wine while pregnant: your grandmother insisted that she drank as much as she wanted to, and your dad turned out fine, didn’t he? Yet one of the women in your prenatal yoga class insists that even a sip is forbidden for the sake of the baby’s health.
You’re probably wondering who’s right. You know that there are risks associated with heavy drinking during pregnancy, but is it okay for expectant mothers to drink moderately while pregnant? And if so, how much is moderate?
This guide walks you through the science so that you can make the best decisions for yourself and for your baby’s development.
How Alcohol Affects A Fetus
When you’re pregnant, it can feel like there’s a long list of everything you can’t do, from enjoying the sauna on your spa-day to twists in your yoga class to indulging in some of your favorite foods. As we reveal in our guide on pregnancy myths, some myths should be taken with a grain of salt such as the correlation between pregnancy cravings and gender, yet there are reasons why drinking in pregnancy has long been discouraged.
When you drink alcohol while pregnant:
- Alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream
- It passes through the placenta
- Then, it is passed to the fetus via the umbilical cord
Scientists at the Duke University Alcohol Pharmacology Education Project explain that “Alcohol is eliminated from the mother’s body by metabolism. Unfortunately, the fetus cannot metabolize alcohol the same way the mother does. The only way to eliminate the alcohol from the fetus is diffusion through the placenta, back to the maternal blood supply.”
A fetus is much smaller than a drinking-age adult, so even if only a bit of the alcohol you consume passes through the placenta, it has a much stronger effect on your developing baby than it does on you.
When Alcohol Does Damage
As your baby’s brain develops, it is rapidly forming new cells. Alcohol passed through the umbilical cord can ultimately cause damage to those developing neurons. This brain damage in the developing fetus can extend to problems with growth and long-term health.
You’ve likely heard of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The results of excessive alcohol consumption can have a variety of effects, from serious to minor. According to researchers at the The Mayo Clinic, symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) include:
- Physical Defects – Deformed joints and limbs, vision and hearing problems, a small head, deformities in organs, distinctive facial features (small eyes and nose or a thin upper lip)
- Issues in the Nervous System – learning disorders and intellectual disabilities, as well as mood disorders
- Behavioral Issues – Poor executive functioning skills, as well as difficulties coping with school, work, and social situations
What Doctors Recommend
In light of these serious risks, some doctors still maintain that “that there is no amount that has been proven to be safe,” as does WebMD’s Jacques Moritz, MD. For these reasons, many women are advised to abstain completely from alcohol while pregnant.
However, if you ask your doctor, Can I drink wine while pregnant? You may get a different answer than your friend who sees another MD—even if they’re in the same practice. In addition, many midwives, doulas, and other birthing professionals have been known to recommend their clients the occasional glass of wine while pregnant.
Howard LeWine, M.D. and Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing notes that new research is challenging conventional wisdom. He writes, “How clear is the medical evidence supporting strict abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy? Not very strong. Other studies suggest pregnant women who have an occasional drink don’t harm themselves or their baby.”
There are many new studies that have found drinking in moderation does not result in the devastating effects of FASD.
New Research on Moderate Alcohol Intake
There is some evidence that drinking in moderation is in fact safe or even beneficial to women’s health. While more research needs to be done, let’s take a look at some recent studies and what the researchers suggest.
Your First Trimester May Be Low Risk
Some women get pregnant by accident, and even those who are trying may not find out right away. That means that many pregnant women consume alcohol at some point during their pregnancy without even knowing it.
While common sense would seem to suggest that a fetus is most vulnerable to the effects of alcohol when it’s at its smallest size, recent research suggests that drinking during the first 15 weeks of a pregnancy may not carry as much risk to the unborn baby as previously thought.
A 2013 study found that “participants who consumed occasional to heavy amounts of alcohol in early pregnancy did not have altered odds of a small-for-gestational-age neonate, reduced birth weight, preeclampsia, or spontaneous preterm birth.” Perhaps even more surprisingly, women who binge drank early in their pregnancies didn’t experience a greater risk for these issues, either.
Moderate Alcohol Consumption May Not Negatively Affect Behavior
A 2010 study of over 2000 pregnancies in Australia looked at developmental differences between children whose mothers engaged in:
- No alcohol consumption
- Up to one drink per week
- Light drinking (2-6 drinks per week)
- Standard drinking (7-10 drinks per week)
- Heavy drinking (11+ drinks per week)
Perhaps surprisingly, this study found that mothers who were light drinkers had children with fewer behavioral issues than did women who did not drink at all.
Light Drinking and Cognitive Defects
A landmark 2013 study by Rachel Humphriss followed close to 7,000 10-year-olds whose mothers had alcohol either moderately (3-7 glasses per week) or more during their pregnancies. The study found that:
- Children whose mothers binge drank displayed poor balance, a potential sign of neurological issues (defined as having more than 4 drinks per day)
- However, there was no evidence of adverse effects on the children of moderate drinkers.
In fact, the study found “an apparently beneficial effect of prenatal alcohol exposure on balance at age 10 years.”
Some evidence suggests that light drinking does not increase the risk of cognitive defects. In 2009, Yvonne Kelly and her team completed a longitudinal study of 3-year-olds and found:
Children of mothers who were light drinkers—defined here as having 1-2 drinks per week—were “not at increased risk of clinically relevant behavioral problems or cognitive deficits compared with children whose mothers did not drink.”
Limits and Insights From Longitudinal Studies
The authors in several of these longitudinal studies note both the limits and insights of their findings thus far. In most cases, mothers self-reported their drinking, which means there might be a little fuzziness to the numbers. After all, can you always count your weekly drinks?
Interestingly, Humphriss and her colleagues even theorized that some of the characteristics we associated with FASDs may actually correlate more with socioeconomic status than with prenatal exposure to alcohol. While not all these studies were able to control or correlate for socioeconomic status, it is clear that women who live in poverty are more likely to drink heavily. It may be poverty rather than alcohol that is linked to some characteristics of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder.
So, Is It Safe to Drink While Pregnant?
When done in excess, drinking wine while pregnant can have serious effects. At the same time, new research suggests that light drinking is not damaging to children’s cognitive and behavioral health. So, is it safe to drink wine while pregnant?
If you’re reading this article because you’ve just found out you’re pregnant and there’s already a glass of wine or two in your rear mirror, it’s highly unlikely that you’ve done any long-term damage to your baby’s health.
However, if you’re deciding whether to keep drinking, it’s important to note that your baby’s exposure to alcohol when you drink is very much affected by individual factors that these studies cannot account for. Factors such as:
- Your body has enzymes that break down the levels of alcohol. How much alcohol is ultimately passed through your umbilical cord depends on the quantity of these enzymes in your body, and this varies from person to person.
- What’s no big deal for one woman might get another drunk quickly, and the effects on their babies would differ, too. Just as pregnant belly shapes differ from one woman to the next, so does their alcohol tolerance.
- A restaurant’s glass of wine may actually contain two 5 oz glasses, and a pint of beer is actually 1.5 drinks. If you choose to drink, you may find it helpful to keep track of your serving size.
Overall, studies show that drinking 1-6 standard size drinks per week (and no more than 1-2 per night) is usually safe for pregnant women and their babies. If you’re unsure about these guidelines or how they apply to you, you can always consult with your doctor.
When You’re Feeling Anxious
Many expectant mothers crave a glass of chianti because they’re feeling understandably stressed and overwhelmed by the changes taking place in their bodies and their lives. If your main issue isn’t a hankering for Riesling but a need for comfort, there are other ways to put your mind at ease.
One thing that can help is finding out your baby’s gender during the months of early pregnancy. With so many questions on your mind, this is one you can easily put to rest—What am I having?
With The SneakPeek Early At-Home Gender Prediction Test, you can find out your baby’s gender as early as eight weeks into pregnancy. After you’ve ordered the gender blood test kit, you can collect your sample from the comfort of your own home and get your results in as little as 72 hours after ordering.
Duke University Alcohol Pharmacology Education Project. How Does Alcohol Get to the Fetus? https://sites.duke.edu/apep/module-5-alcohol-and-babies/content-how-does-alcohol-get-to-the-fetus/
Mayo Clinic. Fetal Alcohol Synrdome. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fetal-alcohol-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20352901?page=0&citems=10
WebMD. Alcohol and Pregnancy. https://www.webmd.com/baby/features/drinking-alcohol-during-pregnancy#1
BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. “My midwife said that having a glass of red wine was actually better for the baby.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4389416/
Harvard Health Publishing. Drinking a little alcohol early in pregnancy may be okay.
Obstetrics and Gynecology. Association between maternal alcohol consumption in early pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24084541
BJOG. Low–moderate prenatal alcohol exposure and risk to child behavioural development: a prospective cohort study. https://obgyn.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1471-0528.2010.02596.x
BMJ. Prenatal alcohol exposure and childhood balance ability: findings from a UK birth cohort study. https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/3/6/e002718
J Epidemiol Community Health. Light drinking during pregnancy: still no increased risk for socioemotional difficulties or cognitive deficits at 5 years of age https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20924051