While no one can predict exactly how alcohol will affect an unborn baby, a number of factors are known to contribute to the impact of alcohol exposure during pregnancy.
The time in the pregnancy when alcohol is consumed.
Any body parts or systems developing at the time a drinking episode occurs are susceptible damage. As a baby’s brain develops throughout the pregnancy, it is always vulnerable to alcohol.
The amount of alcohol consumed.
While research on how much alcohol it takes to cause harm is inconclusive, heavy drinking and binge drinking (three or more drinks on one occasion) sharply increases the amount of alcohol in the mother’s bloodstream and greatly increases the risk to the baby.
The harm caused by light or moderate drinking is difficult to predict, and a safe level of drinking has not been scientifically determined. For this reason, the wisest choice is to avoid alcohol during pregnancy.
Individual susceptibility to alcohol.
Genetic factors determine the mother’s ability to handle alcohol and the unborn baby’s ability to deal with alcohol in its system.
Good nutrition is important for the unborn baby throughout the entire pregnancy. A nutritious diet including a daily multivitamin with folic acid is crucial. Some evidence suggests that good nutrition can potentially lessen the impact of alcohol.
This does not mean a pregnant woman who eats well can drink alcohol without harming her unborn baby. It simply means good nutrition may improve the outcome.
Unfortunately, many women who struggle with substance use and addiction also have poor nutritional status, which has the potential to worsen the impact on the unborn baby.
Damage to the unborn baby may be compounded by poor health, high stress levels and the use of other drugs such as tobacco, medication and illegal street drugs.