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Should Moderate Drinkers Drink Alcohol During Pregnancy? Hard Decision for Pregnant Women

Updated on September 18, 2011

Pregnant women often wonder whether it's okay to take just one drink of mild liquor--such as beer or wine--during pregnancy. There's plenty of medical literature asserting the harmful effects of drinking alcohol when you're pregnant. Still, the answer to the question can sometimes be hard to know for sure, especially if you're only a light drinker. Whether a pregnant woman's alcohol intake is safe for the baby or not depends on whether she's a hazardous drinker, how much is drunk, how far along she is in the pregnancy, her family history, and quite a lot of other stuff.  Since we don't know all the factors, taking the safe route is usually just that--the safest choice for all concerned.  Usually.

For Those Without a Drinking Problem, Whether or Not to Take Alcoholic Drinks is a More Complex Issue

If you have a drinking problem, don't drink when pregnant. There's enough medical evidence to show that excessive drinking has a very high chance of having serious consequences for your baby. Do whatever you can to get help. If you're not alcoholic, however, then the question becomes a more difficult one to answer.

When I worked for a major university research hospital, there was a featured medical article posted that challenged the common perception that all drinking while pregnant is automatically a health risk to the baby. It said that while higher intakes definitely and significantly increase the risk of problems (including but by no means limited to fetal alcohol syndrome), a low alcohol intake (a glass of wine every couple of months, say) may not hurt the baby at all....

But then again, it may.

The exact risk is unknown, since most of the research done has been on excessive drinking in pregnancy. And many factors come into play. Factors such as the time of pregnancy, whether or not the mother has a drinking problem, other risk factors of the pregnancy, and many others play a role.

So it's not black and white.  But for the pregnant woman who must decide whether or not to drink, it becomes black and white when the whole world is looking.

For pregnant women who don't have a drinking problem, and could go either way, it's especially difficult to find guidance...especially if your pregnancy is stressful and you'd just like to relax a little every so often. After all, hasn't every pregnant woman read that medical evidence shows that too much stress while pregnant can hurt the child? So it's not actually an easy decision to make, but one colored with shades of gray.

The medical establishment takes a hard stance on drinking when you're pregnant: Don't do it! I suspect they say this because of the risk of advising just any pregnant woman that it's OK to drink a few sips of soft liquor occasionally. They'd risk women with incipient or full-blown drinking problems talking themselves into drinking, then having trouble keeping their intake low. In other words, they take a blanket hard line by weighing the cost of freedom against risk. A similar philosophy is used in SIDS Back-to-Sleep recommendations.   I personally like this approach, but I see it lends itself to restrictions that can be uncomfortable and even, at times, problematic.

I wouldn't--and didn't, in my case--advocate drinking even one drink of liquor during pregnancy. Personally, I was paranoid about the intake of a teaspoon of alcohol-based vanilla flavoring. Yes, it's a personal decision, but it's one that has a serious impact on the unborn baby for whom you're responsible.  Make sure you're clear-headed when you make that choice and prepared for the consequences for yourself and for your baby.


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    • Sherri L Souzen profile image

      Sherri L Souzen 8 years ago

      Aargh, that is a hard one. I'm not a doctor or psychologist, so I can't really advise you--take anything I say here with a handful of salt. But I had a similar problem in that my pregnancy was extremely stressful, from migraines to economic problems to health problems. I know what you're going through. There are no simple answers.

      In my case, I coped with the stress by easing my workload in whatever way I could (that was a huge help), getting emotional support from others and from, well, ice cream, lowering my (and everyone's) threshold of expectations about how well I'd be able to function, and taking Tylenol, which I was surprised to find worked for my migraines during that period.

      You may find, as I did, that pregnancy makes your body absorb everything you take in orally more completely than it did beforehand (which is the body utilizing all possible nutrients for the baby). So, for example, something as mild as chamomile or peppermint tea may be powerful enough, when you're pregnant, to relax you.

      If it takes more than mild tea or comfort food to relax you, I'd definitely talk to my doctor about alternatives, as one's ability to "ultra-absorb" during pregnancy can make a person more vulnerable to the intoxicating stuff, especially someone who was previously taking anti-anxiety meds.

      I believe that the research showing that babies react to the stress of their pregnant mothers is very new and researchers don't yet know what conclusions to draw from it. My common sense tells me that babies are better adapted to maternal emotional stress than to large amounts of intoxicating substances (which, when you're pregnant, two beers might be).

      Women have rarely been stress-free during pregnancy (or so I believe--they were just worried about different things--basic survival instead of competing with the Joneses). But they've been adapting their diet during pregnancy for a long, long time.

      And that is hard to do. And it means we really do need to change our lifestyles during our pregnancy so we can deal with the stress safely. Work less or work different...get out of normal habits...ask for more help...which is all very hard for the relatively independent women we've become to do, and especially hard in an economic recession.

      Because I'm a "just in case" person, I do recommend you forego the drinking altogether in this case and talk to the doc or seek out all the milder alternatives lots and lots of ice cream sundaes, even if they do make you gain more than you "should." But again, I'm not a doctor, and this is a personal choice every woman is unfortunately stuck with.

      Good luck--and congratulations on your healthy child and your new pregnancy--and do keep us updated!

    • profile image

      Danielle 8 years ago

      I'm wrestling with this issue. During my first pregnancy, I had one drink (a glass of wine or one beer) about once a week after the first trimester. My little one is more than perfect. I'm not so much worried about doing the same thing. My problem right now is that I'm having anxiety attacks, and I can't take xanax while pregnant. I'm trying to decide if living through three days of an anxiety attack is worse for the baby than having a beer or two. I normally would never even consider two, but this is also a much, much worse attack than I've had during pregnancy before. If the attack is hurting me this bad, it has to be hurting my baby too. The big problem there though is that there is no telling if having a beer or two will be enough to calm me down.