Pregnant lady

The facts on alcohol, drugs and pregnancy

Why it’s so important to avoid alcohol and drugs when you’re pregnant and breastfeeding

You might have seen the ‘Every Moment Matters’ ads, telling us that “the moment you start trying for a baby should be the moment to stop drinking.” Ternity Group’s Nourish Baby Health Writer, Jane Barry explains why this message is so important and what to do if you or someone you know needs help.

The effects on mum and baby

If you drink alcohol while you’re pregnant, so does your growing baby. In fact, if you drink then your baby’s blood alcohol level is the same as yours. But because a baby’s organs are immature, they can’t process drugs or alcohol in the same way that an adult can and so being exposed to them can affect the development of their brain, body and organs.

Similarly, if you drink when you’re breastfeeding, the alcohol crosses into your breastmilk and can stay there for several hours. It’s important to remember that your baby’s brain keeps developing once they’re born, so their brain is more sensitive to damage from alcohol than an adult’s brain.

And it’s not just your baby who can be affected. Pregnancy also changes the way your body reacts to drugs and alcohol, which means that some drugs are more harmful to you when you’re pregnant. Common pregnancy complications such as hypertension (high blood pressure) or gestational diabetes also change the way your own body responds to alcohol or drugs.


Which ones are harmful?

The medical recommendations are clear: if you’re planning to become pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding then you should avoid alcohol and non-prescription drugs completely and talk to your GP about any medications you’ve been prescribed.

Any drink which contains alcohol poses a threat to your developing baby, either during pregnancy or when you’re breastfeeding. So, whether it’s beer, wine or spirits, they’re all equally risky. Drugs such as marijuana, opiates, cocaine, heroin and amphetamines are all known to have harmful effects on a developing baby. Even some prescription medications – including benzodiazepines and some antidepressant medications – can be dangerous if you’re pregnant so it’s important to chat to your GP or pharmacist for specific advice.


What are the risks?

The risks are confronting but it’s important to be aware of them because even a small amount of alcohol can harm your baby’s development and may have lifelong effects. The risk of harm increases the more you drink and the more frequently you drink and can include miscarriage and stillbirth or your baby being born:

  • prematurely with an increased risk of a range of complications
  • with a low birth weight (for their gestational age)
  • with complications (like breathing, temperature regulation, maintaining a healthy blood sugar level and feeding difficulties)
  • with birth defects (including seizures or learning difficulties)
  • with a drug dependency, experiencing withdrawals (called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS) and needing sedation.

Complications from drug and alcohol use during pregnancy are not restricted to the early years. Exposure to alcohol during pregnancy means your baby can be at risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) where, having been exposed to substances at crucial times in their brain’s development, their growth, development and learning are affected.


Pregnancy and addiction

Addiction is a complex condition and in many cases is a symptom of emotional pain or trauma in someone’s life. If alcohol and drug use has been excessive, it can be dangerous to stop suddenly so it’s important for pregnant mothers to be monitored carefully in tailored treatment programs run by specialist drug and alcohol units.


Help is available

Having a strong support network can make it easier to stop drinking. If you’re concerned about yourself or someone you know, you can:

  • Ask your GP or healthcare practitioner for help. They can also contact your maternity hospital on your behalf if you’d like them to.
  • Check your maternity hospital’s website and make direct contact with their drug and alcohol support service. They’ll respect your privacy and keep your information confidential until you’re ready to share it with your healthcare providers.
  • Write your concerns on a piece of paper to give to your maternity care provider at your next appointment. Or you can give them printed information about drug and alcohol use during pregnancy (you don’t need to say much to get your message across to a trained professional).
  • Take your partner or a trusted friend or family member with you. Ask them to speak on your behalf if you can’t do it yourself.
  • Ask your drug and alcohol support person (if you have one) to go to your appointments with you. Take a copy of your treatment plan (if you have one).


Remember help is available. For more information visit Every Moment Matters.



Ternity Group supports Teachers Health members through the New Families Program.


Nourish Baby Health Writer Jane Barry has qualifications in general, paediatric, immunisation, midwifery and child health nursing. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Applied Science (Nursing) and has almost 35 years specialist experience in child health nursing.