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Alcohol and Pregnancy: Is 'A Little Bit' Safe?

Find out what experts say about whether light drinking is risky when you’re pregnant.
By Jen Uscher
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

If you're pregnant and wondering if it's OK to indulge in the occasional small glass of merlot or to sip a little champagne on New Year’s Eve, the advice you receive may be confusing.

Some doctors recommend that you completely avoid alcohol when you’re expecting; others say that occasional light drinking is unlikely to harm your baby.

Chances are your friends are divided on this, too. One might confide that she enjoyed the occasional beer during her pregnancy and feels her child turned out fine, while another sees this as taking an unnecessary risk.

For decades, researchers have known that heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause birth defects. But the potential effects of small amounts of alcohol on a developing baby are not well understood.

Whatever the risks, many moms-to-be are choosing not to totally give up alcohol. A recent CDC study found that about one in eight pregnant women in the U.S. report drinking at least one alcoholic beverage in the past month.

Here’s what doctors say pregnant women should keep in mind when deciding whether to drink lightly or to steer clear of alcohol altogether.

How Much Is Too Much?

“The problem with drinking alcohol during your pregnancy is that there is no amount that has been proven to be safe,” says Jacques Moritz, MD, director of gynecology at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York.

David Garry, DO, associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and chair of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Task Force for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists District II/NY, agrees. He says that researchers don’t know enough about the potential effects of drinking alcohol at particular times during the pregnancy to be able to say that any time is really safe.

It’s also difficult to predict the impact of drinking on any given pregnancy because some women have higher levels of the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.

“If a pregnant woman with low levels of this enzyme drinks, her baby may be more susceptible to harm because the alcohol may circulate in her body for a longer period of time,” Garry tells WebMD.

Because there are so many unknowns, the CDC, the U.S. Surgeon General, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics advise pregnant women not to drink alcohol at all.

They note, on their web sites, that pregnant women who drink alcohol risk giving birth to a child with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). These conditions range from mild to severe and include speech and language delays, learning disabilities, abnormal facial features, small head size, and many other problems.

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