How it can hurt
Even small amounts of alcohol put your baby at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome, characterized by birth defects that include facial abnormalities, mental retardation and poor physical growth. "Alcohol is particularly dangerous during the first and second trimesters, when the fetus's organs are developing," says obstetrician Laura Riley, M.D., medical director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and author of You and Your Baby: Pregnancy (Meredith, 2006). "It continues to pose a danger in the third trimester, when the brain is still developing." But the sooner you quit drinking, the better: According to a study recently conducted at the University of New Mexico, the later in pregnancy that heavy drinkers begin to abstain, the smaller the baby's brain.
You may think it's OK to have a couple of drinks now and then--after all, your best friend enjoyed occasional cocktails while she was expecting, and her baby turned out just fine. But the effect that alcohol has on a baby varies based on factors scientists don't fully understand, and adverse effects may be subtle, Green warns.
Binge drinking--having several drinks at one time--can be particularly lethal. For example, even if you abstain for the rest of your pregnancy, having three or four glasses of champagne at your sister's wedding could harm your baby if it happens at a time in his development when alcohol can do the most damage. Unfortunately, doctors have only a general idea of when those windows of vulnerability occur. Bottom line: There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant and no safe time to drink.
Why tell your doctor
Fetal alcohol syndrome is the No. 1 preventable cause of birth defects, according to Green, and ending your drinking habit sooner rather than later makes a difference. Your doctor can steer you to sources of help.
For more help The Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator, findtreatment.samhsa.gov, 800-252-6465.