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Alcohol and pregnancy

Confused about whether you should cut out alcohol or simply limit your drinking in pregnancy? According to the National Guidelines for Drinking to Reduce Harm, cutting out alcohol is the safest choice.

Is there a safe level of drinking in pregnancy?

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) alcohol guidelines can help people make informed choices about how to drink at a low-risk level. However, we don’t know yet whether a low-risk level of drinking during pregnancy exists.

What we do know though is that alcohol consumption in pregnancy has serious consequences. Research shows that heavy drinking can harm unborn babies but the effects of drinking more moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy are still unclear. That’s why the Australian alcohol guidelines recommend that the safest option is for women to avoid alcohol altogether. Both when they’re pregnant, planning to fall pregnant or breastfeeding.

What effect does alcohol have on the baby?

There’s evidence to suggest that alcohol consumed by a pregnant woman can cross from her bloodstream into the placenta. So the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of the developing baby reaches the same level as in the mother. This may damage developing cells in the foetus and lead to a range of birth defects and growth and developmental problems.

It’s not clear whether any particular stage of pregnancy is more vulnerable to alcohol’s effects. But stopping drinking at any stage in the pregnancy will lower the risk to the baby.

What if I drank alcohol in the early stages of pregnancy before I realised I was pregnant?

The risk to your baby from low-level drinking at this stage is likely to be low, according to the NHMRC. But the safest thing to do is to stop drinking altogether while you’re pregnant. If you‘re worried, ask your doctor for advice.

How much alcohol is harmful?

An unborn baby is likely to be harmed by large amounts of alcohol, especially if a lot of alcohol is drunk in one session. What’s uncertain is the effect of drinking small or moderate amounts of alcohol. Some studies — but not all — show links between moderate amounts of alcohol and low birth weight, miscarriage, stillbirth and birth defects. Alcohol during pregnancy has also been linked with problems with the baby’s development and behaviour, called foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

What is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is not a single disorder. It is a term that covers a range of problems that may affect babies exposed to alcohol before birth. These include developmental and behaviour problems, such as problems with thinking, memory and learning, reduced attention span, irritability and impulsivity.

The best known and most severe problem is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) which is linked to heavy drinking in pregnancy. Babies born with foetal alcohol syndrome have serious and irreversible problems that can affect their physical and emotional health. They often have abnormal facial features and are smaller than expected at birth. They may also have heart defects and are likely to have developmental, behavioural, learning and growth problems.

What if you’re pregnant or planning to be and need help to stop drinking?

If you feel that you need help to control your drinking, you can talk to your doctor for more information. There are confidential drug and alcohol services in your area that can help.

Information on how to contact some of these services is listed below in the Further Information section. You should also talk to your doctor.

Is it safe for women to drink alcohol while they’re still breastfeeding?

Alcohol crosses into the breast milk and may stay there for several hours. But the effects on the baby from this aren’t clear. Although some evidence suggests that drinking two standard drinks or more each day can affect milk production and disrupt babies’ sleep-wake patterns.

Because the effects are uncertain, it’s safest for breastfeeding mothers to not drink alcohol during this time. However, if you choose to drink, the advice from the National Alcohol Guidelines is:

  • Avoid alcohol in the first month after delivery until breastfeeding is well established
  • After that, you should limit your alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks a day, and avoid drinking immediately before breastfeeding
  • Consider expressing your breast milk.

Further information

DrugInfo Clearing House: to help you find a range of free, anonymous drug and alcohol services that may be available in your local area.

National Health and Medical Research Council. Summary of the Australian Guidelines for Alcohol


Children, Youth and Women’s Health Service. Alcohol during pregnancy. [online] Adelaide, SA: Government of South Australia. [last updated 2 Aug 2010, accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from:

Kesmodel U Wisborg K Olsen SF et al . Moderate alcohol intake during pregnancy and the risk of stillbirth and death in the first year of life. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2002; 155(4): 305–312.

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. The Harmful Effects of Alcohol. [online] Kensington, NSW: University of NSW Faculty of Medicine. c2005 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from:

National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines: To Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. 2009 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: (PDF 2.27Mb)

Sayal K. Alcohol consumption in pregnancy as a risk factor for later mental health problems. Evidence Based Mental Health. 2007; 10: 98–100.

Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. Alcohol and Pregnancy and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder — A resource for health professionals. 1st revision. [online] Perth, WA: Telethon Institute of Child Health Research. 2009 [accessed 26 Aug 2010] Available from:

World Health Organisation (WHO). Framework for alcohol policy in the WHO European Region. [online] Copenhagen, Denmark: WHO. 2006 [accessed 23 Aug 2010] Available from: (PDF 452Kb)

Last published: 30 July 2011


This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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