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Alcohol during pregnancy and breastfeeding

Alcohol is a teratogen (toxin)

Alcohol interrupts or changes the normal development of a fetus, including the brain and other organs at any stage during pregnancy. Examples of other toxins that can harm a developing baby include radiation, mercury, lead and medicines such as thalidomide and anti-epileptic drugs.

Alcohol crosses the placenta

The baby is exposed to the same blood level of alcohol as the mother. Because the liver of the developing baby is not fully formed until late in pregnancy. This means the baby has the same, or possibly even higher blood alcohol content as the mother and it remains at that level longer.

No amount of alcohol at any time during pregnancy is guaranteed to be completely 'safe' or 'risk free' for the developing baby. We know that any alcohol consumption changes some biolgical processes in the cells of the mother and baby.

The actual risk of harm is hard to predict and is different for everyone. This is because other factors such as:

  • age
  • general health and medical conditions 
  • levels of stress
  • other drug use
  • body composition (percentage of fat, muscle, water, bone)

also influence how alcohol is metabolised and therefore the risk of harm to the developing baby.

While we know that the risk for the developing baby is highest when drinking heavily throughout pregnancy, we can't pinpoint the specific amount where harm starts. Because of this it is best not to drink alcohol at all during pregnancy.

Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol

Australia has evidence based guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. These include:

  1. Reducing the risk of alcohol related harm over a lifetime
  2. Reducing the risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking
  3. Children and young people under 18 years of age
  4. Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Our focus is on Guideline 4 Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

  • For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option
  • For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option

Read more in the Australian Guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol (Guideline 4 pages 67-79)

Planning a pregnancy

To give your baby the best chance it is recommended that 'no alcohol when planning a pregnancy is the safest option'.

 

 

During pregnancy

There is no safe time or safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy and it is recommended that 'no alcohol during pregnancy is the safest option'

While breastfeeding

Alcohol is concentrated in the milk and can affect the baby. It can lower the amount of milk your body produces. Therefore, it is recommended that 'no alcohol while breastfeeding is the safest option'.

Watch some videos

Is there ever a safe time to drink alcohol in pregnancy?

Professor Carol Bower, Head Alcohol and Pregnancy & FASD Research at Telethon Kids Institute

Can I drink alcohol while breastfeeding?

Dr Roslyn Giglia, Co-Head Alcohol and Pregnancy & FASD Research at Telethon Kids Institute

So why do women drink alcohol when they are pregnant?

There are many social factors that have been shown to affect a women's likelihood of drinking alcohol during pregnancy:

  • lack of knowledge about the effects of alcohol on the fetus
  • lack of convincing evidence that the occasional drink is harmful
  • having a partner or friend who drinks
  • opinions from family and friends who drank during their pregnancy with apparently healthy children
  • peer pressure, particularly on special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, New Years Eve
  • lack of support from partner, friends or family
  • living in family or community tolerant of heavy drinking
  • social isolation & living in remote communities
  • poverty
  • stress, domestic violence, lonliness

While poverty and unemployment may be contributing to drinking in some populations, Australian research has found that in mainstream public antenatal care, higher income and tertiary educated women were 2-4 times more likely to drink alcohol throughout pregnancy than women with only secondary school education.

Partners, friends and family all play a major part in supporting a pregnant woman to stop or reduce her drinking. If you have a partner or friend who is pregnant then let them know you are there for them and will support them in stopping drinking.

Tips for a healthy pregnancy

  • No alcohol
  • No smoking or illicit drugs
  • Limited caffeine
  • Healthy diet avoiding foods such as soft cheeses, pâté, cold cooked chicken
  • Folate and iron supplements
  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate sleep
  • Avoid environmental toxins such as pesticides
  • Prescription medicines under medical supervision

If you have any concerns or need help with any of these factors talk to your GP, midwife or obstetrician.

Alcohol and breastfeeding

Feedsafe is a mobile application which contains answers to questions about alcohol and breastfeeding and can calculate the time until there is no alcohol in your breastmilk and it is safe to feed your baby.

This app is available for iOS and Android devices.

Information and resources related to alcohol use in pregnancy

NOFASD Australia resources

Information cards, posters and brochures

Women Want to Know

Information for women on alcohol and pregnancy

Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education

Pregnant Pause

Telethon Kids Institute

Alcohol Pregnancy & FASD

Page last updated 29 October 2018