September 13, 2022

Alcohol and pregnancy

women drinking coffee

Can I drink alcohol while pregnant?

The Australian alcohol guidelines recommend that you shouldn’t drink alcohol if you’re pregnant, or planning a pregnancy.1

This is to prevent any potential harm to your pregnancy or developing baby.

Risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy

Drinking while pregnant can contribute to:

  • miscarriage
  • stillbirth
  • small birth size (small babies are more prone to illness, and slow growth and development)
  • premature labour.1

Drinking during pregnancy can also lead to a range of impacts on a child’s learning, memory, behaviour and development, which is referred to as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).3

It’s long been known that high levels of drinking during pregnancy can negatively impact development and result in FASD.2

And, we now know that even low levels of drinking can impact a child’s development in early years of life, and may lead to FASD.3

It’s estimated globally that 1 of every 13 alcohol exposed pregnancies results in FASD.4

When should I stop drinking?

The best time to stop drinking is when you’re planning to become pregnant. Where a pregnancy is unplanned, it’s best to stop drinking as soon as you discover you are pregnant.

Impacts from drinking can occur at any time during pregnancy, however, there’s particular risks between weeks three and 10, when a baby's brain and major organs are starting to develop.5

But, the risk of preterm birth, low birth weight and the infant being small for its gestational age are similar across all trimesters.1

Not drinking while pregnant can be challenging for some people.

If you’re pregnant and finding it hard not to drink, help is available.

A doctor, health care professional, or pre-natal alcohol and drug service can support you. Your doctor can provide advice, link you to support services and organise a specialist medical checkup or treatment if necessary.6

See bottom section of this article for more support services.

Why is alcohol harmful to developing babies?

Alcohol is a teratogen (a substance that causes fetal abnormalities).

Any alcohol you drink passes through the placenta to your growing baby at nearly the same levels of concentration as in your bloodstream.

Your body does not break down the alcohol before it reaches the baby.1, 6

The alcohol may also impact the blood flow between the placenta and fetus.7

This can lead to reduced oxygen to the developing baby’s:

  • brain
  • heart
  • pulmonary vessels
  • liver.7

Does alcohol affect sperm?

Drinking lowers sperm volume and concentration, impacting fertility.8, 9

Long-term heavy drinking can potentially cause permanent damage to testes and fertility.10

Alcohol before conception may damage sperm, potentially impairing the child’s development in the future.11

It’s recommended that men reduce or stop drinking at least 3 months before trying to conceive.12

Alcohol and breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is ideal for your baby’s health as it provides protection against a range of infections and allergies. It also provides an opportunity to bond with your baby.6

Any alcohol you drink passes into your breast milk.

It takes about 2 hours from the start of drinking to clear 1 standard drink of alcohol from breast milk.1 The precise time will depend on your:

  • height
  • weight
  • age
  • diet
  • amount of body fat
  • general health.

Any other drugs (including cigarettes and pharmaceuticals) you take can also affect the rate at which your body processes alcohol.

Only when blood alcohol has gone back to zero is breastmilk free of alcohol.1

Even relatively low levels of drinking may disrupt your child’s feeding, sleep habits and development.1

The safest option is to not drink.

But if you want to have a drink, the key is to plan ahead.

You could express some milk before having a drink. While you're waiting for the amount of alcohol in your milk to drop, your baby can have your expressed milk.1, 13

Check out the Feed Safe app for handy tips and info.

If things don’t go quite to plan and you’re not sure whether it’s safe to breastfeed after drinking, you can call the Breastfeeding Helpline and speak with a counsellor who can help. They’re available 24/7 on 1800 686 268.

For more information, see the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s recommendations.

Hints and tips for not drinking while pregnant

Worried you might be tempted to drink in certain situations? Here are some tips to help:

  • Catching up with friends? Meet in places where alcohol isn’t the focus, like cafes, galleries, parks, the beach or museum.
  • Heading out at night? Choose bars and restaurants with good selections of non-alcoholic drinks and food.
  • Need some motivation? Remind yourself of all the wonderful reasons you are not drinking for your baby.
  • Feeling pressured at social events? Keep a non-alcohol drink in your hand and avoid people that might tempt you. If you’re finding it difficult to resist drinking, or you’re no longer having a good time – have your exit strategy sorted.
  • Not ready to tell people why you aren’t drinking? Check out these creative excuses for not drinking, or some tips on what to say.

Need some support?

  • If you’re ready to share your news, talk to your family and friends about why you’re not drinking, they can support and even join you in being alcohol-free.
  • If you have a partner, they can also support you by being alcohol free, or reducing their drinking.
  • Check out Every Moment Matters for info and support for parents, friends and family, and health professionals.
  • Talk to your GP, an alcohol or other drug counsellor or your health team if you’re finding it hard to stop.

And remember to take care of yourself. Pre-natal yoga or Pilates, meditation, walking, swimming and rest are all great ways to unwind and deal with stress during pregnancy.

If you’re worried about your alcohol use, you can contact the National Drug and Alcohol Hotline for confidential information about treatment and support on 1800 250 015.

More information

This article has been written in collaboration with the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education (FARE).

  1. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2020.
  2. Jonsson E. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD): A Policy Perspective. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry [Internet]. 2019 [15.08.2022]; 64(3):[161-3 pp.].
  3. Halliday JL, Muggli E, Lewis S, Elliott EJ, Amor DJ, O’Leary C, et al. Alcohol consumption in a general antenatal population and child neurodevelopment at 2 years. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health [Internet]. 2017 [15.08.2022]; 71(10):[990-8 pp.].
  4. Lange S, Probst C, Gmel G, Rehm J, Burd L, Popova S. Global Prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Among Children and Youth: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey [Internet]. 2017 [18.08.2022]; 73(4):[189-91 pp.].
  5. Santrock JW. Life Span Development: Australia / New Zealand. North Ryde, NSW: McGraw-Hill Education (Australia); 2014 [15.08.2022].
  6. Department of Health. Clinical Practice Guidelines: Pregnancy Care. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health; 2020.
  7. Dumont U, Sanchez S, Olivier B, Chateil J, Deffieux D, Quideau S, et al. Maternal alcoholism and neonatal hypoxia-ischemia: Neuroprotection by stilbenoid polyphenols. Brain Research [Internet]. 2020 [19.08.2022]; 1738.
  8. Boeri L, Capogrosso P, Ventimiglia E, Pederzoli F, Cazzaniga W, Chierigo F, et al. Heavy cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption are associated with impaired sperm parameters in primary infertile men. Asian Journal of Andrology [Internet]. 2019 [19.08.2022]; 21(5):[478-85 pp.].
  9. Finelli R, Mottola F, Agarwal A, Kwon W-S, Yoshinaga J. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Male Fertility Potential: A Narrative Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [Internet]. 2021 [19.08.2022]; 19(1).
  10. Citroner G. Understanding Testicular Atrophy 2018 [19.08.2022].
  11. Zhou Q, Song L, Chen J, Wang Q, Shen H, Zhang H, et al. Association of Preconception Paternal Alcohol Consumption With Increased Fetal Birth Defect Risk. JAMA pediatrics [Internet]. 2021 [19.08.2022]; 175(7):[742–3 pp.].
  12. Healthy Male. Sperm health 2022 [19.08.2022].
  13. The Australian Breastfeeding Association. Alcohol and breastfeeding 2022 [23.08.22].

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