Alcohol use during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which are physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that last a lifetime. More than three million U.S. women are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, having sex, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy.
About half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned and, even if planned, most women do not know they are pregnant until they are four to six weeks into the pregnancy. This means a woman might be drinking and exposing her developing baby to alcohol without knowing it. There is no known safe amount of alcohol – even beer or wine – that is safe for a woman to drink at any stage of pregnancy.
An estimated 3.3 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 years are at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy, according to the latest CDC Vital Signs report released February 2, 2016. The report also found that three in four women who want to get pregnant as soon as possible do not stop drinking alcohol when they stop using birth control.
“Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant,” said CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, M.D. “About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking. The risk is real. Why take the chance?”
Healthcare providers should advise women who want to become pregnant to stop drinking alcohol as soon as they stop using birth control. Most women don’t know they are pregnant until they are four to six weeks into the pregnancy and could unknowingly be exposing their developing baby to alcohol. The baby’s brain, body, and organs are developing throughout pregnancy and can be affected by alcohol at any time. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) are completely preventable if a woman does not drink alcohol during pregnancy.
Drinking while pregnant can also increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
For this Vital Signs report, scientists from the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities analyzed data from the 2011–2013 National Survey of Family Growth, which gathers information on family life, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, infertility, use of birth control, and men’s and women’s health. National estimates of alcohol-exposed pregnancy were calculated among 4,303 non-pregnant, non-sterile women ages 15–44 years. A woman was considered to be at risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy if in the past month she was not sterile, her partner was not known to be sterile, she had vaginal sex with a male, drank any alcohol, and did not use birth control. A woman was considered to be trying to get pregnant if a desired pregnancy was the reason she and her partner stopped using contraception.
Overall, 3.3 million U.S. women (7.3 percent of women ages 15–44 who were having sex, who were non-pregnant and non-sterile) were at risk of exposing their developing baby to alcohol if they were to become pregnant.
“Every woman who is pregnant or trying to get pregnant – and her partner – want a healthy baby. But they may not be aware that drinking any alcohol at any stage of pregnancy can cause a range of disabilities for their child,” said Coleen Boyle, Ph.D., director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. “It is critical for healthcare providers to assess a woman’s drinking habits during routine medical visits; advise her not to drink at all if she is pregnant, trying to get pregnant or sexually active and not using birth control; and recommend services if she needs help to stop drinking.”
It is estimated that one in twenty U.S. school children may have FASDs. Those with FASDs can experience a mix of the following problems: Low birth weight and slow growth, problems with the heart, kidneys, or other organs, damage to parts of the brain. This can lead to low IQ, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, and poor social and judgment skills. The lifelong issues may include problems living independently, substance abuse, and trouble with the law. The cost in 2010 in the U.S. for drinking while pregnant was $5.5 billion.
The CDC works to prevent alcohol-exposed pregnancies and FASDs through a variety of activities including:
- Tracking alcohol use among women of reproductive age in the United States;
- Supporting the implementation of evidence-based interventions to reduce risky alcohol use and alcohol-exposed pregnancies, including through alcohol screening and brief intervention and the CHOICES program;
- Collaborating with FASD Practice and Implementation Centers and national partners to promote practice changes among healthcare providers in the prevention, identification, and management of FASDs;
- Promoting effective interventions for children, adolescents, and young adults living with FASDs and their families; and
- Offering FASD-related educational information and materials for women of reproductive age, healthcare providers, and the general public.
See the CDC Announcement
Also see the CDC Vital Signs Report
See also Medical Law Perspectives, August 2015 Report: Pediatrician Liability for Childhood Disease Complications
See also Medical Law Perspectives, January 2015 Report: Mothers, Infants, and Obstetrical Injuries: Labor and Delivery Liability
See the Medical Law Perspectives March 25, 2015, Blog: Risks of Prescription and OTC Pain Medicines during Pregnancy
See the Medical Law Perspectives February 23, 2015, Blog: Florida’s No-Fault Compensation System for Severe Birth Injury Claims Fails Again