Get healthy during pregnancy and breastfeeding


Pregnancy, childbirth and caring for a newborn baby can be a challenge, especially when the list of "do's" and "don'ts" is endless. Mothers to be are told that some weight gain is healthy, but within the healthy weight guidelines, to eat a balanced diet but not X, Y and Z, to exercise regularly but not vigorously.

But how many women know the real impact of one or two glasses of wine during their pregnancy? And how many mothers know that drinking alcohol while breastfeeding might be just as harmful as drinking when pregnant? The answer, regrettably, is not many.

Low adherence to guidelines

A recent study by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) found that although 70 per cent of Australians are aware there are guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol, only one in four know of the actual content. 

It is likely that this is a contributing factor to the high prevalence of alcohol use during pregnancy in Australia, which according to findings from a BMJ Open study, ranges from 40 per cent to 80 per cent. The BMJ study highlighted low adherence to alcohol guidelines that advise complete abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy.

However the reasons for drinking while pregnant might vary from a culture of tolerance towards alcohol consumption during pregnancy, drinking because their partner continues to drink throughout this period, stressful living conditions, a lack of knowledge, mental illness and addiction.

The facts

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) miscarriage, stillbirth, and perinatal death.

When a pregnant woman drinks, alcohol moves through her body ('circulates') in the bloodstream, and also enters the baby's bloodstream via the placenta in the same concentration. Alcohol can affect the development of the baby's brain. There is no safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy and no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy.

After birth, the babies of alcohol dependent mothers can suffer withdrawal symptoms, including tremors, irritability and fits.

What is FASD?

FASD is a term to describe a group of conditions caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. According to Drink Tank, FASD is the most prevalent, preventable disability in the world.

Not much accurate data on the prevalence of FASD in Australia is available but it is estimated that FASD affects roughly between two per cent and five per cent of the population in the United States. The prevalence may be as high as 12 per cent in some high-risk Indigenous communities, according to the Australian Medical Association (Aug 24, 2016).

A baby born with FASD can have life-long problems with learning, growth, behaviour, memory, language, communication and everyday living. They may also have birth defects and facial abnormalities. However, most children with FASD show no visible signs but could have brain damage that causes:

  • Physical and emotional developmental delay
  • Impaired speech and language development
  • Learning problems, e.g. poor memory
  • Difficulty controlling behaviour

There is no cure for FASD and its effects last a lifetime.

Alcohol and breastfeeding

Alcohol in the mother's bloodstream passes into breast milk. It can reduce the milk supply, and can cause irritability, poor feeding, sleep disturbance, and poor psychomotor development in the baby.

A number of factors affect how much alcohol gets into your breast milk, including: the strength and amount of alcohol in your drink; what and how much you've eaten; how much you weigh; how quickly you are drinking.

It is advised that mothers avoid alcohol in the first month after delivery until breastfeeding is going well and there is some sort of pattern to their baby's feeding. It is generally risky to take any drug while breastfeeding without medical advice.

Find out more about alcohol and breastfeeding by visiting the Australian Breastfeeding Association website.

The guidelines

According to the 2016 Alcohol Policy by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, drinking during pregnancy can result in congenital abnormalities and disability.

The 2009 National Health and Medical Research Council alcohol guidelines state that for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option.

The Get Healthy Service

If you're struggling to cut down your alcohol consumption, help is available – and it's free! Get Healthy is a telephone-based coaching service that provides NSW residents over 18 with a free personal health coach to guide and support them on their journey to live a healthy life - helping them to drink less alcohol, get active and eat well.

The service has a Healthy in Pregnancy module which helps pregnant women be active and healthy during pregnancy. Speak to a Get Healthy in Pregnancy Service coach today to see how they can help you to stop drinking during your pregnancy. Call 1300 806 258 today or sign up online.

For health information and content about pregnancy, having a young baby and how alcohol during pregnancy can affect a baby's development check out the Stay Strong and Healthy Facebook page.

Want to know whether your drinking habits are putting you at risk? Find out with the Your Room Risk Assessment.

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