Pregnancy can be one of life's most exciting times, but as any woman who has given birth can attest, it's also a period of adjustment. Becoming a mother means rethinking and relearning a lot of habits, and perhaps the most notable of these changes is forgoing that nightly glass of wine in the name of fetal alcohol syndrome prevention.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition that affects unborn children due to alcohol passing directly from the mother's bloodstream to the fetus through the placenta. This is why the CDC recommends that women who intend to become pregnant avoid drinking, starting when they go off contraception, rather than waiting until they conceive.
Here's a closer look at the rationale behind this advice and what you need to know about fetal alcohol syndrome prevention.
What Happens When You Drink While Pregnant?
The long-standing wisdom has been to avoid alcohol entirely while pregnant. But why exactly have doctors and experts toed such a hard line? The reason is that it's simply hard to say just how much alcohol is necessary to cause harm to an unborn child. The CDC notes that there's no amount of alcohol that is considered safe for pregnant women to consume.
Think about it this way: Drinking while you're pregnant causes the alcohol level in the fluids your body sends to the fetus to rise just as high as it does in your blood. Your brain and body are fully formed, but your baby's isn't yet. That means the threshold for when the damaging effects of alcohol start kicking in is much lower for your unborn child than it is for you.
A Look at the Effects
In this light, it's easier to understand why the recommendation is to completely avoid and not just limit alcohol; the stakes are just too high. According to the CDC, fetal alcohol syndrome can cause damage to the baby's brain that may last an entire lifetime.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also highlights a number of other symptoms, including:
- Issues in the child's motor, speech, and cognitive skill development.
- Poor or delayed growth and muscle formation.
- Birth defects resulting from complications in the development of the face, head, eyes, and heart.
Best Practices for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Prevention
In light of these potential problems, the NIH recommends that sexually active women who aren't taking any form of contraception avoid drinking, even if they don't intend to get pregnant right away. When you factor in this entire demographic, there are 3.3 million U.S. women at risk of exposing a developing baby to the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, according to the CDC.
The good news? The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome notes that while there is no cure for the disease, it is entirely preventable if you avoid alcohol while pregnant or trying to conceive.
Should you discover that you're pregnant and have had a drink or two in the time since, don't panic: Simply stop drinking and consult your physician. It's unlikely that any serious damage has occurred. Otherwise, heed the official recommendations and abstain from alcohol while pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding, and you and your baby will be in the clear.