Each year, millions of American women become pregnant without any prior planning; significant numbers of these women do not welcome their pregnancies. In a study published in October 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from two American universities compared alcohol consumption patterns among pregnant women who wanted to be pregnant to the consumption patterns of pregnant women who didn’t want to be pregnant. Among other things, these researchers concluded that women with unwanted pregnancies have higher chances of previously engaging in binge drinking.
Alcohol and Pregnancy
Roughly 50 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. do not plan their pregnancies. Whether or not a pregnancy is planned, alcohol consumption can seriously harm the health of a pregnant woman’s developing child. Three factors account for this harm: the toxic nature of alcohol, the unpreventable transfer of alcohol in a mother’s bloodstream to the bloodstream of her developing fetus and developing children’s inability to eliminate the alcohol that accumulates in their systems. A woman who repeatedly drinks large amounts of alcohol while pregnant exposes her unborn child to fetal alcohol syndrome and other related conditions known collectively as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Potential short- and long-term consequences of fetal alcohol syndrome include abnormally slow prenatal and postnatal growth, altered facial structures in a newborn child, abnormal heart function and potentially permanent problems with learning and memory retention, speech production, logical thinking, impulse control and the ability to focus or maintain attention. A pregnant woman who consumes alcohol in moderate amounts has increased risks for experiencing a miscarriage.
Doctors in the U.S. and other countries routinely ask pregnant women to strictly avoid alcohol consumption. The highest alcohol-related risk levels appear during the early stages of pregnancy. However, drinking can disrupt the normal course of fetal growth and development at any point during a woman’s nine-month gestation period.
Alcohol bingers drink heavily enough in a roughly two-hour timeframe to reach or exceed the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content required for legal drunkenness. A man will typically qualify as a binge drinker when he consumes at least 3.0 oz of pure alcohol (the amount of alcohol contained in five standard drinks) within a couple of hours. A woman will typically qualify as a binge drinker when she consumes at least 2.4 oz of pure alcohol (the amount of alcohol contained in four standard drinks) in the same amount of time. Alcohol bingers have seriously heightened risks for severely negative short-term drinking outcomes that include alcohol-related accidents, alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related physical assaults and alcohol-related sexual assaults. Regular bingers also have increased risks for damaging long-term outcomes that include diagnosable alcohol abuse and alcoholism (the two overlapping forms of alcohol use disorder).
Unwanted Pregnancy and Alcohol Binging
In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from UC San Francisco and the University of North Dakota used information from a project called the Turnaway Study to explore the issue of alcohol use (and other forms of substance use) in women with unwanted pregnancies. A total of 956 women took part in this project. All of the participants were actively seeking to terminate their pregnancies; however, some of the participants had already exceeded the time limit for pregnancy termination and therefore remained pregnant.
Slightly more than half (56 percent) of the study participants consumed alcohol in the 30-day period of time before they realized they were pregnant. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of the participants binged on alcohol in that timeframe by consuming at least six drinks in a single session. The researchers concluded that the overall amount of alcohol consumed by women with unwanted pregnancies is roughly the same as the amount consumed by pregnant women as a whole. However, they also concluded that women with unwanted pregnancies apparently have notably higher chances of qualifying as binge drinkers. In addition, the researchers identified several factors that increase the odds that a woman with an unwanted pregnancy will binge on alcohol. These factors include smoking cigarettes/tobacco, having a recent history of exposure to physical assault and having a college degree.
The study’s authors note that women with unwanted pregnancies quit drinking alcohol while pregnant roughly as often as pregnant women as a whole. They urge future researchers to continue to probe the factors that make alcohol intake during pregnancy more or less likely.