Alcoholism is a chronic disease that is difficult to overcome, even in dire circumstances. If you are struggling with addiction or alcoholism, there are a variety of life events and circumstances that may require you to stop drinking, like health problems, upcoming surgeries, legal consequences, etc.
However, alcoholism deeply affects the brain in a manner that changes the way you process alcohol use. You may experience cravings and compulsions to drink that get out of control. Even when you know you have to stop, alcoholism might not be something you can power through with the strength of will on your own.
In any given year, there are upwards of six million women pregnant at a time. At the same time, alcoholism affects a little more than five million women. Despite consequences, there is more overlap in those two statistics than you might think. In fact, around 10 percent of pregnant women reported some form of alcohol abuse during their pregnancy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This can be anything from drinking four or more drinks on one occasion to a pattern of ongoing alcoholism.
Alcohol’s effects during pregnancy are still being studied today but it’s clear that it can have damaging consequences. In many cases, women understand that alcohol can be harmful and even deadly to a fetus but they still can’t overcome urges to drink. In other cases, pregnant mothers may not be aware of the dangers inherent while drinking during pregnancy. Moreover, treating addiction alongside pregnancy is complicated and risky and some women find it difficult to get the help they need.
Here’s how alcohol can affect a pregnant mother and baby and how alcoholism can be treated during pregnancy.
When you first become pregnant, you may have a number of questions as to what you can and can’t put into your body safely. One question that comes up is exactly how much alcohol you can drink. However, according to the CDC, there is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy and there is no time throughout the pregnancy when it is safe to drink. Even wine and beer with lower alcohol content can pose a significant risk to an infant developing in the womb.
When a pregnant mother drinks alcohol, it slips into her bloodstream and passes to the baby through the umbilical cord. Once the alcohol is passed to the baby it can start to have a wide variety of negative side effects including miscarriage, stillbirth, and permanent physical and cognitive disabilities.
Disabilities caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or FASDs. These disorders can cause long-term physical problems, issues with learning, and behavioral problems.
Potential FASD-related complications include:
Alcohol use during pregnancy has also been associated with an increased risk of developing a type of mental disorder called conduct disorder. Conduct disorder is associated with anti-social behavior and violates the basic rights of others and age-appropriate behavior. Conduct disorders are marked by fearlessness that is uncharacteristic of most children and it often stems from an inability to deal with fear or stress in a healthy way. Conduct disorders, like prenatal alcohol use, are closely associated with ADHD.
Conduct disorders are also associated with early alcohol use and the development of alcohol use disorders. Because conduct disorders come with a lack of inhibitory mechanisms and poor judgment, it causes children and adolescents to be more likely to drink at an early age. Early exposure to alcohol can cause alcoholism or drug addiction later in life.
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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders refer to a wide variety of physical and psychological effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol. Disorders that fall into this category can be the result of alcohol-related developmental issues that affect any of the body’s major systems. Drinking at any moment during pregnancy can cause these disorders, even during very early stages. In many cases, it can take up to six weeks before a woman realizes that she’s pregnant and drinking during that time can be dangerous. For that reason, the CDC recommends that women avoid alcohol in instances of unprotected sex.
Here are some of the disorders associated with prenatal exposure to alcohol that fall under the category of FASDs:
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is probably the most well-known FASD and it’s associated with a number of physical and cognitive symptoms. FAS also represents the most severe end of the spectrum and can sometimes result in death or permanent impairments. The disorder is characterized by abnormal facial features, problems associated with the central nervous system, and growth issues. As children with FAS develop, they can experience issues with learning, hearing, memory, maintaining focus, and communications skills.
Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) is mostly associated with cognitive issues like learning impairments, lower IQ, and behavioral issues. Children with ARND often have trouble in school, especially in subjects involving mathematics. They might have issues with judgment and impulse control that leads to social issues and difficulty with authority.
Alcohol-related birth defects typically refer to physical issues that cause medical conditions or complications. Alcohol can affect development in the womb in a way that causes long-lasting or permanent effects to the heart, kidneys, bones, or hearing. In some cases, these disorders can be life treating or cause serious physical impairments.
Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE) is the most recently recognized diagnosis in the FASD category. ND-PAE involved issues that are related to cognition and behavior. The most common issues caused by this disorder involve memory, planning, tantrums, mood swings, irritability, attention, and daily living tasks like bathing and dressing correctly.
Treating alcoholism is a complex process that is made even more complicated if you are pregnant. In many cases, women don’t seek treatment because they are afraid of what it could do for their baby. They may also be afraid of legal repercussions.
Typically, pregnancy will mean that you need a high level of care and medical expertise. There are a number of approaches available for the treatment of an alcohol use disorder (AUD) but not all of them are appropriate for a pregnant mother.
There are three medications that are approved for AUD treatment in the U.S. including, naltrexone, disulfiram, and acamprosate. However, there is very little information as to the safety of these drugs in pregnant women and some evidence suggest that they might be dangerous. However, weaning off of alcohol can also pose a risk to the baby.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can also cause a danger to the mother and child without treatment. Alcohol withdrawal can come with a variety of symptoms ranging from mild nausea and tremors to seizures, panic, and catatonia. There is very little research as to the effects of alcohol withdrawal on a pregnancy but it can be assumed that the physical and psychological upheaval that it comes with can pose a significant threat.
However, there are treatment options available for pregnant women seeking help with an AUD. It’s important that each case is treated on an individual basis. Medical professionals will be able to evaluate your specific needs and the benefits and risks of each treatment method. If you have a low risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms, you may only need medical monitoring and treatment to alleviate mild symptoms.
In more severe cases, you will need a medical team ensuring your safety and the safety of your baby. Regardless, seeking medical treatment is safer than going through an AUD and pregnancy alone. If you need help, or if you are concerned that you might have an AUD while pregnant, don’t hesitate to reach out to learn more.
Going through a pregnancy with an alcohol use disorder can be incredibly difficult, especially when you are on your own. If you or someone you know is suffering from alcoholism or any other type of addiction while pregnant, there is help available. Addiction is difficult to overcome, especially while going through a pregnancy, but you don’t have to do it alone.
CDC. (2015, September 24). CDC Newsroom. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p0924-pregnant-alcohol.html
CDC. (2018, March 27). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html
DeVido, J., Bogunovic, O., & Weiss, R. D. (2015). Alcohol Use Disorders in Pregnancy. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4530607/
Disney, E. R., Iacono, W., McGue, M., Tully, E., & Legrand, L. (2008, December). Strengthening the Case: Prenatal Alcohol Exposure is Associated with Increased Risk for Conduct Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2597332/
Finn, P. R., Mazas, C. A., Justus, A. N., & Steinmetz, J. (2006, April 11). Early‐Onset Alcoholism With Conduct Disorder: Go/No Go Learning Deficits, Working Memory Capacity, and Personality. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1530-0277.2002.tb02524.x
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics