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How much alcohol is too much?

A common question when talking about the effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol is “how much alcohol is too much?”; “is there a safe amount to drink during pregnancy?”; and “will social drinking affect my baby?” The answer to all of these questions is that there is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy. For this reason the U.S. Surgeon General advises that all pregnant women abstain from drinking alcohol throughout their pregnancy. We do know that several factors contribute to significant variation in how prenatal alcohol consumption impacts the developing fetus. As outlined in “ Drinking Patterns and Alcohol-Related Birth Defects” (Alcohol Research & Health, Vol. 25, no. 3, 2001), these factors can include, but are not limited to:

  • Maternal drinking pattern (how often, how many drinks, what type of alcohol)
  • Differences in maternal metabolism (everyone processes alcohol differently)
  • Timing of the alcohol consumption during pregnancy (different parts of the fetus develop at different times, but the brain develops throughout the pregnancy)
  • Variation in the vulnerability of different brain regions

Every child exposed prenatally to alcohol is impacted differently. For some, a relatively small amount of exposure can result in significant thinking, processing and behavioral deficits. For others exposed to larger amounts of alcohol prenatally, the impact appears minimal. Each mother and each developing child are unique and are impacted differently by exposure to alcohol—there is no way to predict the postnatal outcomes, until it is too late and the damage is done.

Statistics confirm that alcohol abuse during pregnancy is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation in the United States. Why take a chance with the health and well-being of your developing baby? For this reason the best policy is no alcohol during pregnancy.

If you are pregnant, don’t drink; if you drink, don’t get pregnant.

Posted Spring 2002