CDC Urges Women Planning Pregnancy to Stop Drinking

February 2, 2016
Mary Caffrey

CDC is concerned about the effects of alcohol consumed before women know they are pregnant, in light of studies that show women are now drinking almost as much as men.

Women who are thinking about becoming pregnant—or would welcome pregnancy if it happened—should ask whether drinking is worth the risk, especially if they stop using contraception, according to a report from the CDC.

With half of all pregnancies unplanned, “this means a woman might be drinking and exposing her developing baby to alcohol without knowing it,” the CDC warned in a statement that accompanied today’s study, part of the Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report. “Alcohol screening and counseling helps people who are drinking too much to drink less. It is recommended that women who are pregnant or might be pregnant not drink alcohol at all,” lest they risk fetal alcohol spectrum disorders for their children.

Data released yesterday, in a report led by Patricia P. Green, MSPH, found that US women between the ages of 15 and 44, which epidemiologists consider the childbearing window, had a 7.3% prevalence of an alcohol-exposed pregnancy. In any 1-month span, 3.3 million women and girls are at risk of an alcohol-exposed pregnancy, according to the findings.

Between the end of Prohibition and the early 1970s, Americans largely ignored evidence about alcohol use during pregnancy, and some cultures even believed that a glass of red wine was “good for the baby.” The lack of widespread admonition about alcohol use during pregnancy was offset by the fact that women drank far less than men.

In this generation, the danger has shifted. While many educated women halt drinking once they know they are pregnant, the fear is the harm done in the early weeks of fetal development before women know they are expecting. A report released late last year from National Institutes of Health found that women generally drink far more than their mothers did. With so many pregnancies unplanned, CDC officials worry about the alcohol exposure in the first 4 to 6 weeks. And then there are women who continue to ignore warnings about drinking during pregnancy.

“Therefore,” the authors of today’s report warn, “the best time to assess alcohol consumption and inform women about health consequences to them and their child is before pregnancy.”

CDC’s concern is magnified by the fact that women age 25 to 29 had the highest risk of alcohol exposed pregnancy (10.4%), with those age 15 to 20 years having the lowest risk (2.2%). Risks were higher among married women (11.7%) and those living with a male partner (13.6%) than among single women (2.3%). Smokers had higher risk (10.7%) than non-smokers (6.0%).

Alcohol is a teratogen that can cause lifelong problems for the developing fetus, including mental health disorders, social problems and difficulty with school and holding a job, substance abuse disorders, and problems living independently. In the worst cases, children whose mothers drank during pregnancy also get into trouble with the law.

Reference

Green PP, McKnight-Eily LR, Tan CH, Meija R, Denny CH. Vital Signs: alcohol-exposed pregnancy—United States, 2011-2013. MMWR. 2016; 65: early release February 2, 2016.