A doctor on the 5 things you need to know about drinking and pregnancy.

Alcohol. Think Again.
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I sometimes joke that my second child was the product of a gin and tonic. 

While I joke about it now, the truth is, about four weeks after that particular evening when I saw two lines appear on a pregnancy test, I was worried. 

Worried about what harm I may have caused my baby by drinking alcohol before I knew I was pregnant.

Given that nearly half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned, I know many parents who have been in this situation, just as I was. It can be quite stressful and overwhelming when you think you may have done something that could impact on your baby's health and development. 

So what impact does drinking alcohol during pregnancy have on our babies?

Based on the latest scientific evidence, health experts recommend that those who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol – and if you are breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is the safest option for the baby. 

Mamamia spoke to Dr Colleen O’Leary (Epidemiologist, and Alcohol and Pregnancy Researcher) to find out five important things about alcohol and pregnancy.

It’s safest to stop drinking when you start trying to fall pregnant.

Let’s start with the situation that many parents, including myself, have found themselves in. 

Most people don’t find out they are pregnant until a couple of weeks along in their pregnancy – and without the knowledge of their pregnancy yet, may continue to drink alcohol up until this time.

The latest evidence tells us there isn't a "safe amount or time to drink alcohol during pregnancy", so it’s safest to stop drinking when you start trying to fall pregnant.


According to the National Health and Medical Research Council, "A baby’s brain starts growing very early in pregnancy, often before the [parent] knows [they are] pregnant," and says that when a parent "drinks alcohol during pregnancy, so does the developing baby."

Alcohol can unfortunately damage the baby’s brain, because alcohol is a teratogen – an agent that can interrupt the development of an embryo (or fetus).

Speaking to Mamamia, Dr O’Leary said, "If a [person] drinks alcohol without knowing [they are] pregnant, it does not automatically mean the baby will be harmed as there are a range of factors that play a role in determining the risk of harm to the baby. But for those in this situation, stopping alcohol use once you find out you are pregnant will prevent further risk to your baby."

Dr O’Leary added that if you are concerned about having used alcohol before you knew you were pregnant, or in need of any support or guidance, you shouldn't hesitate to discuss any concerns you have with your health professional. 

Can you drink alcohol in specific trimesters of pregnancy?

"There is no safe time during pregnancy to drink. Alcohol can unfortunately cause permanent harm to the developing baby in a number of ways, and the type of harm varies depending on the stage of pregnancy when the woman drinks, and how much she drinks," Dr O’Leary told Mamamia.

One reason for this, she said, is because "the baby’s brain development is very sensitive to harm from alcohol exposure during pregnancy. A baby’s brain starts developing very early in pregnancy and continues to develop throughout pregnancy."

The confusion on low-alcohol drinks.

Wine, bubbles, spirits, cider or beer – there's no type of alcohol that's recommended to be safe during pregnancy. 


Dr O’Leary also confirmed for us that there's no alcoholic beverage safer than another, including those with a lower alcohol content. 

"Any type of alcohol beverage increases the risk of harm to the developing baby," said Dr O’Leary.

Does the placenta protect a developing baby from alcohol exposure?

According to current research, Dr O’Leary says, "the alcohol that a pregnant [person] drinks passes freely across the placenta to reach the baby."

Research shows that when a person drinks alcohol during pregnancy, the concentration of alcohol in the baby is similar to the concentration in the parent.

This is because the alcohol passes through the placenta to the baby before the parent's body can break down the alcohol, and the baby’s liver is not yet formed, so it cannot process the alcohol in their blood yet.

If an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol, it has the potential to result in:

  • Miscarriage

  • Stillbirth

  • Premature birth

  • A range of conditions known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), including physical, mental and behavioural disabilities

Although the risk is greatest with high, frequent alcohol use, it's important to know that even low levels of alcohol can affect the development of an unborn baby at any time during pregnancy.  

“The risk to the baby from alcohol exposure during pregnancy increases the more often the mother drinks and the quantity used. Drinking at low levels is likely to be low risk, but it hasn’t shown to be without risk, so the advice is for pregnant women not to drink alcohol during pregnancy,” says Dr O’Leary.

You can support a loved one through their alcohol-free pregnancy.

As partners, friends and family members, we can all support and encourage the women we care about to stay alcohol-free during pregnancy and breastfeeding – and support without judgement. 


When alcohol is the highlight of socialising, the FOMO can be real. With this awareness, it can take a village to help create the environment for those pregnant and breastfeeding in your life to feel included and without fear of judgement or external pressure to use alcohol. Organising occasions that are alcohol-free and finding other ways to relax and celebrate can be a huge positive influence.

It's important that we feel supported by our loved ones as we grow a healthy baby. Don’t be afraid to ask for support from them, or a partner, to go alcohol-free during your pregnancy. 

For some people, stopping drinking can be difficult. If you are pregnant, and finding it difficult to manage your alcohol use, know you are not alone. There is free support available, with confidential and non-judgemental services that can offer help.

If you would like more information about alcohol use during pregnancy, planning pregnancy or breastfeeding, contact your GP or another health care professional. For resources and tips to go alcohol-free or support alcohol-free pregnancies, visit Alcohol. Think Again.

If you or someone you know you know needs help or support in relation to their alcohol or other drug use, including during pregnancy, the Alcohol and Drug Support Line is a confidential, non-judgemental telephone counselling, information and referral service. The phone service is free of charge and available 24/7 by calling (08) 9442 5000 or 1800 198 024 (toll-free for country callers).

Feature Image: Getty.

Alcohol. Think Again.
There is no safe amount or time to drink alcohol during pregnancy. A woman's placenta doesn't protect her baby from alcohol, so any amount of alcohol mum drinks, baby drinks. To help give our babies the best start to life, health experts recommend women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy not drink alcohol. For more information and tips to stay alcohol-free during pregnancy, visit Alcohol. Think Again.