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The Chief Medical Officers’ guidance is that:

  • If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep the risks to your baby to a minimum.
  • Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby; with the more you drink the greater the risk.

The risk of harm to the baby is likely to be low if a woman has drunk only small amounts of alcohol before she knew she was pregnant or during pregnancy.
Women who find out they are pregnant after already having drunk during early pregnancy, should avoid further drinking, but should be aware that it is unlikely in most cases that their baby has been affected (DoH, August 2016).


Maternal alcohol consumption can harm the developing fetus or the breastfeeding baby. It is the nation’s leading preventable cause of developmental disabilities and birth defects. The exact prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) in the United Kingdom is not known. International prevalence studies in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Finland, Japan and Italy state that at least 1 in 100 children are affected. This would equate to at least 6,000–7,000 babies born with FASD each year in the UK (cited NOFAS, 2017).

There are limited and inconsistent data on alcohol consumption during pregnancy but overall, alcohol consumption among women has declined over recent years but instances of heavy drinking remain high (BMA, 2016). Most women either do not drink alcohol (19%) or stop drinking during pregnancy (40%) {DoH, January 2016}.

Alcohol is a teratogen, a toxic substance to the developing fetus, and can interfere with healthy development causing brain damage and other birth defects.
Drinking heavily during pregnancy can cause a baby to develop fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS is a serious condition, in which children have:

  • restricted growth
  • facial abnormalities
  • learning and behavioural disorders, which are long lasting and may be lifelong.

Drinking lesser amounts than this either regularly during pregnancy or in episodes of heavier drinking (binge drinking), is associated with a group of conditions within FASD that are effectively lesser forms of problems seen with FAS. These conditions include physical, mental and behavioral features including learning disabilities, which can have lifelong implications. The risk of such problems is likely to be greater the more you drink (DoH, 2016)

Evidence base

British Medical Association (June 2007, updated February 2016) Alcohol and pregnancy. Preventing and managing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

DoH (January 2016) “UK Chief Medical Officers’ Alcohol Guidelines Review. Summary of the proposed new guidelines” Department of Health

DoH (August 2016) “UK Chief Medical Officers’ Low Risk Drinking Guidelines” Department of Health.

National Organisation on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – UK (2017) “Information for GP’s” NOFAS UK, London.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence {NICE} (2008)

NHS Choices website Alcohol Units – Live well, last reviewed: 27/04/2015