Effects of Drinking Alcohol in the first Trimester of Pregnancy

What are the effects of drinking alcohol during the critical first trimester of pregnancy? Research indicates that it depends on when and how much a woman drinks. However, no one knows what the safe limit of alcohol consumption is when a woman is pregnant. It’s your child. Why take the risk?

First days of pregnancy

If you had a few drinks before you suspected that you were pregnant, this was probably during the first one to three weeks. The embryo has not imbedded itself in the placenta, so there is no connection between the infant’s blood stream and the mother’s.

This is not to say that drinking during the very earliest weeks is safe. Studies conducted in Denmark indicate a seriously increased risk of spontaneous abortion if the mother consumes alcohol at any time during pregnancy.

According to the March of Dimes, women who suspect they may be pregnant or are trying to conceive should not drink alcohol at all.

The third week of pregnancy

Once the embryo implants itself in the placenta, dramatic changes take place. The brain begins developing at this time and continues to develop throughout pregnancy. By the fourth week, all major systems are beginning to form. Although the embryo still looks like a tadpole, the heart, brain, digestive system, spinal cord, eyes and ears are all developing. The heart has begun to beat.

By the end of the eighth week, the embryo looks more human. The arms and legs are clearly visible, and bones start to form. The major organs are functioning and still forming. Features become more distinct. The head is still large in proportion to the body, and the embryo is in constant motion, although the mother cannot feel this.

From embryo to fetus

The word fetus means offspring, and the growing infant looks more and more like a human child. After 8 weeks, the baby is no longer referred to as an embryo, but has become a fetus. Still only about 1-1 ½ inches long, the fetus has formed all major organs.

Nine to twelve weeks of pregnancy

Growth is rapid. The genitals, fingernails, eyelids, and voice box begin to form. Arms and legs are fully developed. By the twelfth week, all systems are formed, but the fetus could not survive outside the protective environment of the womb.

First trimester of pregnancy

Health Library advises that these first twelve weeks are the most vulnerable time for the developing infant. All major organs and body systems are forming, and can be damaged by exposure to any toxins, including alcohol. This includes the brain.

Consequences of alcohol consumption during the first trimester can range from mild to severe, with more serious damage usually resulting from heavier drinking. However, even light to moderate drinking can cause lifetime, irreversible problems for the child.

The most severe form of birth defect associated with alcohol is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, first reported in 1973 in the medical journal The Lancet, FAS affects the infant in three devastating ways. These are a characteristic malformation of facial and cranial bones and reduced head size, brain abnormalities, and problems with major organs like the heart.

FAS is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation. It is also associated with behavior problems and learning disabilities, poor muscle development, and small body size. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that between 1,000 and 6,000 babies are born each year in the United States with this devastating condition. They are unlikely to ever be able to live independently.

Milder forms of the condition are known as ARBDs and ARNDs. They can hardly be regarded as “mild.” ARBDs can damage any of the major organs, including heart, kidneys, liver, eyes, ears and bones. Children with ARNDs (Alcohol Related Neural Defects) have learning and behavior problems. They include difficulties with attention, memory, and problem solving; speech and language delays; and psychological disorders. Many are hyperactive.

 Children affected by alcohol related syndromes are more likely than others to have criminal behavior or need treatment in psychiatric facilities. They will have problems in school and may later have difficulty obtaining and maintaining employment.

While some experts say that the occasional drink during pregnancy may not be harmful, clearly there is a risk. It is unknown how much alcohol is safe, and all individuals react differently. Why take the chance?