Ask the Doc: Can I Consume a Small Amount of Alcohol?

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Question: With the Holidays approaching, I’m wondering if I can consume a small amount of alcohol. I’ve heard that a small amount of alcohol consumption is safe during pregnancy. Is this true?

Answered by Errol Norwitz, M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Norwitz is internationally recognized for his work in high-risk obstetrics. He is the Chair of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Tufts Medical Center, and a Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. He is board certified in Obstetrics & Gynecology and Maternal-Fetal Medicine. 

Alcohol is potentially dangerous to the unborn child because it is capable of crossing the placenta and entering the fetal bloodstream; therefore, concentrations found in the fetus may be as high if not higher than in the mother.

No “safe” amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been established, so it is recommended that you simply avoid it altogether. What researchers do know is that six or more drinks per day (3 ounces each) constitute a major risk. The timing of alcohol ingestion is also important. It appears that the most dangerous time to consume alcohol is in the first and last trimesters of pregnancy. The reason for this is that during the first trimester there is rapid fetal cell growth, while in the last trimester there is rapid brain growth. However, alcohol consumption can injure the baby at any time, since the fetal brain continues to develop throughout pregnancy.

When alcohol is present in a pregnant woman’s body, it crosses the placenta and is distributed in the fetal liver, pancreas, kidney, thymus, heart, and brain. Alcohol has the ability to affect fetal growth because it interferes with carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most common preventable cause of mental retardation in childhood.

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