Pregnancy and baby

Alcohol in pregnancy

Can I drink alcohol while pregnant?

Media last reviewed: 20/03/2014

Next review due: 20/03/2016

Experts are still unsure exactly how much, if any, alcohol is completely safe for you to have while you're pregnant, so the safest approach is not to drink at all while you're expecting.

What's the official advice?

The Department of Health recommends that if you’re pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, you should avoid alcohol altogether. But, if you do opt to have a drink, you should stick to no more than one or two units of alcohol (equivalent to one or two small glasses of wine) once or twice a week to minimise the risk to your baby.

Additional antenatal advice from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) advises women to avoid alcohol in the first three months in particular, because of the increased risk of miscarriage.

How is drinking in pregnancy potentially harmful?

When you drink, alcohol passes from your blood through the placenta and to your baby. A baby's liver is one of the last organs to develop and doesn't mature until the latter stages of pregnancy. Your baby cannot process alcohol as well as you can, and too much exposure to alcohol can seriously affect their development.

In addition to the risk of miscarriage, more recent research found that drinking, particularly in the first three months of pregnancy, also increases the risk of premature birth and low birthweight.

Should you choose to drink after the first three months of your pregnancy, consuming alcohol carries risks of affecting your baby after they're born. The risks are greater the more you drink. The effects include learning difficulties and behavioural problems.

Drinking heavily (more than six units a day) throughout pregnancy can cause your baby to develop a serious condition called foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children with FAS have:

  • poor growth
  • facial abnormalities
  • learning and behavioural problems

Drinking less heavily, and even drinking heavily on single occasions, may be associated with lesser forms of FAS. The risk is likely to be greater the more you drink.

The healthiest option

It may not be as difficult as you think to avoid alcohol completely for nine months, as many women go off the taste of alcohol early in pregnancy. Most women do give up alcohol once they know they are pregnant or when planning to become pregnant.

However, women who are drinking before they know they are pregnant, especially if not drinking heavily, should not worry unnecessarily, as the risks of their baby being affected are likely to be low. If they are concerned, they should consult their doctor or midwife.

Alcohol units

If you do decide to drink when you’re pregnant, it's important to know how many units you are consuming.

One UK unit is 10 millilitres (ml) – or eight grams  of pure alcohol. This is equal to:  

  • half a pint of beer, lager or cider at 3.5% alcohol by volume (ABV: you can find this on the label)
  • a single measure (25ml) of spirit, such as whisky, gin, rum or vodka, at 40% ABV
  • half a standard (175ml) glass of wine at 11.5% ABV

You can find out how many units there are in different types and brands of drinks with the Drinkaware unit and calorie calculator

If you have an Android smartphone, iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, you can download the free Change4Life Drinks Tracker from Google Play or the iTunes App Store. It allows you to keep a drinks diary and get feedback on your drinking.

Read more about alcohol units.

Getting help cutting down

If you have difficulty cutting down what you drink, talk to your midwife, doctor or pharmacist.

Confidential help and support is also available from local counselling services (look in the telephone directory, or contact Drinkline on 0300 123 1110).

Read more advice on cutting down your drinking.

Page last reviewed: 06/07/2015

Next review due: 06/07/2017

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