A night of drinking can lead to more than just an unexpected pregnancy. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now warning women of childbearing age to avoid alcohol, unless they are using contraception, because of the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Public health campaigns have long warned pregnant women to avoid drinking alcohol, reducing the chance their baby will be born with fetal alcohol syndrome. However, even with these precautions, one in 750 babies in the United States is born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and 40,000 are born with fetal alcohol effects (FAE) every year. Known collectively as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), they associated with developmental, physical, and functional problems that persist throughout the baby’s life. Because the effects of alcohol on a developing fetus can be so severe, and because it is the leading known preventable cause of physical and developmental birth defects in the United States, the CDC decided to take its warnings a step further. The new recommendations, from the February 2nd Vital Signs report, suggest that women should not drink any alcohol if there is any chance at all that they could become pregnant.
The CDC statistics suggest the risk is real. According to their numbers, more than 3 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 may participate in unprotected sex combined with drinking, potentially putting a fetus at risk for FAS or FAE. Even 3 in 4 women who stop using birth control with the intention of becoming pregnant do not stop drinking alcohol right away. Women may not even know they are pregnant for about the first month of their pregnancy, and about half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, so there is a good chance a fetus may be unknowingly exposed to alcohol in the first month. The risk of having a child with FASD goes up twelve times when a mother consumes alcohol in her first trimester of pregnancy.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists already recommend that women avoid all alcohol while pregnant. However, the CDC takes these recommendations a step further by saying women should avoid alcohol if there is any chance at all that they might be pregnant.
The risk of FAS and FAE is not limited to heavy drinkers. While a drink now and then may seem harmless, the CDC says that there is no known safe alcohol level at any stage in pregnancy, including the first month. An estimated 8 percent of American women drink alcohol while pregnant.
A fetus does not develop a liver until later stages of pregnancy, which means that when they absorb alcohol from their mother through the placenta, they have no way of filtering it out of their tiny body. The alcohol can go straight to their developing brain, damaging the sensitive organ. When babies have been exposed to large amounts of alcohol before birth, they may go through symptoms of alcohol withdrawal in their first few weeks. The alcohol exposure may also affect their heart rate, digestion, and breathing. Babies exposed to alcohol before birth may be smaller and their faces may be affected.
When a baby has been born with brain damage from alcohol exposure, they can have learning disabilities, low IQ, hyperactivity and attention problems, poor judgment and reasoning skills, and problems communicating in social situations. These fetal alcohol syndrome problems can lead to mental illness and substance abuse later in life. Some estimate that alcohol consumption during pregnancy costs $5.5 billion a year in the U.S.
Critics say the new recommendations could lead to shaming young women for simply having a drink. However, the CDC contends that with the consequences so serious, having a drink is just not worth the risk.