Drinking Before You Know You're Pregnant: Should You Panic?

Oluwatosin Michael
Jan 15, 2024 By Oluwatosin Michael
Originally Published on May 21, 2021
Realising you had a drink before you found out you were pregnant can be worrying.
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Read time: 6.5 Min

By now, we know we shouldn't be drinking alcohol during pregnancy, but what if you had a drink before know you are pregnant?

When you've just found out you're pregnant, so many things fly through your mind. From how and when to let people know, to what crib to buy and how to deal with leaky breasts, there's a whole new world to delve into.

With so much going on, suddenly realizing that you must have already been pregnant when you went out for those after-work drinks can lead to a perfect storm of worry. So just how much of a worry is the health risk to your baby of drinking before you knew you were pregnant?

The Dangers Of Drinking And Pregnancy

It's pretty common knowledge by now that there is no safe amount of alcohol to drink during early pregnancy. According to the CDC, anyone who is pregnant or is trying to get pregnant should avoid alcohol completely.

And there are good medical reasons why drinking while pregnant is heavily not recommended. Risks to the health of your baby include birth defects, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, low birth weight, miscarriage, premature birth, and stillbirth.

After conception, the fetus gets everything it needs through the umbilical cord joined to the mother's placenta. That means that all those nutritious foods and prenatal vitamin supplements can get through, but so can anything harmful that's in your system, including, you guessed it, alcohol.

Adults produce an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol, which is why your buzz wears off. Babies don't produce much of it yet, so it's hard for them to get the alcohol out of their system.

Instead, the alcohol hangs around in the baby's body, affecting the developing nervous system, brain, and other internal organs and leading to conditions like fetal alcohol syndrome.

If you are already pregnant and are worried that you can't stop drinking, speak to your doctor or to a specialized addiction recovery service as soon as you can. We know it's scary.

Even if you just call for more information, it's important to take the first step. You may also want to consider if this is something you need to deal with before continuing on the journey to conception.

The Dangers Of Drinking Before You Know You're Pregnant

Pregnancy tests only work after implantation has happened.

Drinking alcohol before you know you're pregnant is a difficult issue. The early signs of pregnancy can be easy to miss, especially if you weren't trying for a baby in the first place.

Additionally, it takes six to 12 days after conception for the fetus to implant in the mother's womb.

Implantation triggers the hormones that create a positive pregnancy test, so even if you took a test early on just in case, you may have had a false negative. Plenty of women have accidentally had the odd drink in that first month of pregnancy before their missed period.

Drinking alcohol in early pregnancy is thought to lead to an increased risk of miscarriage as well as fetal alcohol syndrome and other associated disorders. However, it's not known for certain just how early these effects can begin. That's why the official line is that no amount of alcohol is safe.

Before implantation, the fetus has no link to the mother's bloodstream, and organs like the brain don't start to develop until implantation. This makes it unlikely they could be affected by alcohol consumed before then, but not impossible. After implantation, things get murkier.

Alcohol use in very early pregnancy is a difficult area to study because scientific ethics don't really allow for encouraging a control group of women to drink through their first trimester.

Additionally, many women experience no signs that they're pregnant at all before their first missed period, making them hard to identify as being in the early stages of pregnancy.

The important thing is to stop drinking as soon as you realize you're pregnant. It's possible that that drink could have caused some harm, but it's also possible you and your baby have had a lucky escape. Once you know you're pregnant, stopping drinking completely is the only way that's proven to be safe.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the medical term for a developmental disorder caused by maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy. It's thought that alcohol affects the development of the baby's brain, nervous system, and other organs, resulting in FAS.

FAS comes with severe health issues. These include problems with brain development, damage to internal organs like the heart and kidneys, facial deformities, and lower than average height and weight as well as an unusually small head.

Children with FAS are often recognizable by their flat philtrum (the skin between the nose and mouth), thin upper lip, and small eyes. They more frequently struggle at school because of poor memory and concentration, impaired impulse control, underdeveloped reasoning skills, and speech and language delays, among other learning difficulties.

Milder, associated disorders such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder can have cognitive symptoms like behavior issues, attention problems, difficulties with coordination, and poor impulse control without the visible symptoms.

These effects of alcohol during pregnancy will affect the child for life. There is no cure for FAS at present.

Drinking Whilst Trying To Get Pregnant

Trying for a baby is an exciting stage in your life.

The CDC recommends avoiding alcohol while trying to get pregnant. There are a few reasons for that. For one, you don't want to end up spending nine months panicking about the risk to your baby's health because you had a drink then realized you were expecting.

For another, alcohol can affect your fertility, making you less likely to conceive if you're drinking regularly. There have been fewer studies on how alcohol consumption can affect your partner, but cutting back is unlikely to do them any harm. If your partner not drinking makes it easier for you not to drink, talk to them about it.

We realize that not drinking while trying to get pregnant can be easier said than done. Special occasions like a friend's wedding or family birthday can mean questions being asked about why you're suddenly giving the bar a hard pass.

If you don't feel ready to explain your journey towards having a baby yet, you don't have to.

From a nasty hangover last time to trying to eat healthily, or just plain not feeling like it, there are plenty of excuses.

And remember, 'no thanks' is a sentence, and you don't owe anyone an explanation (and you'll probably want to get some practice in at saying 'no' before you have to use it on a toddler!). Alcohol and pregnancy really don't mix, so start as you mean to go on.

So now we've said all that, should you panic? Probably not, because no-one has invented a panic-powered time machine yet and it won't mean you didn't drink. Does that mean you won't panic? Also, probably not. That's a scary list of side effects up there.

Should you call your doctor, explain and make an appointment? Absolutely. If nothing else, it should help you worry a little less. Your doctor will also be ready to spot any potential signs if it does turn out that your child has been affected. Early diagnosis is key to your baby getting the help they need.

If the thought of telling your doctor fills you with dread, you can find a new doctor or access an alternative service. A good doctor will help rather than judge. And if you have to fight for that help, consider it your first standing-up-for-my-kid moment of what will likely be many.

If you found this article helpful, then why not take a look at the dangers of licorice root in pregnancy or what to do if you get morning sickness at night?

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Written by Oluwatosin Michael

Bachelor of Science specializing in Microbiology

Oluwatosin Michael picture

Oluwatosin MichaelBachelor of Science specializing in Microbiology

With a Bachelor's in Microbiology from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Ogun State, Oluwatosin has honed his skills as an SEO content writer, editor, and growth manager. He has written articles, conducted extensive research, and optimized content for search engines. His expertise extends to leading link-building efforts and revising onboarding strategies. 

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