Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The Risks and Scares of Drinking Before You Know You're Pregnant


Oh so many things to be grateful for, right? Amber has a good one. She wrote celebrating her newly positive pregnancy test. She's pretty darn nervous though, because of the celebrating part. Though she and her partner weren't exactly "working" on getting pregnant, they'd been talking about it and not avoiding it at all. They had unprotected sex and, sure enough, pretty soon, Amber was pregnant. Here's what she's worried about: Even though she intended to get pregnant, she didn't quit drinking until she got her positive test. Now she's worried she may have a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome.

What's Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)? The Centers for Disease Control define FAS as one of the leading known preventable causes of mental retardation and birth defects. If a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy, her baby can be born with FAS, a lifelong condition that causes physical and mental disabilities. FAS is characterized by abnormal facial features, growth deficiencies, and central nervous system (CNS) problems. People with FAS might have problems with learning, memory, attention span, communication, vision, hearing, or a combination of these. The Mayo Clinic reports that FAS affects about three out of every 1,000 births or 12,000 babies per year.

Three out of 1000 aren't extremely high odds Amber's baby will have FAS since 997 of that same 1000 won't. Does that mean it's OK to drink when you're planning to get pregnant? Nope. That was kind of dumb, right? I said it last week and I'll say it again: Sex makes babies. There's so much magical thinking that goes into pregnancy. We're hard-wired to think, "It can't possibly happen to me, right? It can't possibly happen that soon, right?" Oh, sure it can. Happens all the time. If you're planning on, thinking about, dreaming of, considering and/or talking about the possibility of getting pregnant and having unprotected sex —quit drinking. That's the best-case scenario and what Amber should have done.

There, Amber, you've been scolded. Now let's move on. OK, you partied, so your odds are going to be higher than a non-drinker. I trust at this point you're clean as a whistle and living like a saint, right? There are about four million babies born in the US every year and you can be certain that quite a few of them were conceived before Mom knew better than to put down the margarita. How many babies are conceived in the back of a pickup after chugging a six-pack? Who knows? How about babies born after a bottle or two of wine? Who knows? I'll bet there's a study out there on this one but the point is that lots of babies are conceived while Mom's kind of lit. Now that you know you're pregnant, you won't touch a single drop.

There aren't any tests that absolutely rule out FAS during pregnancy but there are plenty of screening tests for birth defects. 'Fess-up and tell your doctor/midwife that you drank before you knew you were pregnant. Guess what, you won't be the first woman with this story. You won't even be the first woman that day. He/she'll probably reassure you that everything's most likely going to be OK. If something's terribly wrong with this early, fragile pregnancy, you might miscarry. You might not. If you don't, odds are that your baby will be fine. What if your baby isn't fine and you have one of those three? You'll love it and care for it and do everything you have to when raising a special needs baby. There are no guarantees that even if you'd never seen a drop of alcohol in your life that you'll have a "perfect" baby. No guarantees. Every time a woman gets pregnant there are risks. Some babies are born with "issues." It won't be the end of the world. This will be your baby no matter what and you'll love him/her more than anyone else in the whole wide world. That just about the only guarantee you get.

The thing about scares like this one Amber, is they're a wake up call—an opportunity to look at your life and lifestyle and decide where your priorities are. Are you drinking too much and quitting was too hard? Now that you're dedicated to your healthy pregnancy and not drinking at all, you may want to look at the part that alcohol plays in your life and think hard about that when you're no longer "required" to abstain. Partying and parenting don't mix. On the other hand, there are plenty of mothers out there who find a glass of wine to be their salvation at the end of a day taming a toddler. I'm not saying you have a problem, Amber. I'm just saying, look at it. Decide for yourself what's best for you and your child.

Now that you know the affect that your behavior and habits have on your baby's health and wellbeing, you'll find all kinds of things to worry about. Do your best. That's all we can ask for, right? Live a healthy lifestyle and chances are good, your child will be fine, well-loved and secure. Nobody can ask for more and you'll soon find out that's what most of us are most grateful for—a healthy, happy family. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to labornurse@fitpregnancy.com and it may be answered in a future blog post.

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.