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What you need to know about alcohol and having a baby

So you want to have a baby and you’re wondering about how drinking will affect your chances of getting pregnant, as well as the health of your child-to-be?

After considering the research evidence, the Fertility Coalition, a group of four independent organisations running the Your Fertility campaign, has identified alcohol as one of the five key factors affecting a person’s ability to conceive and have a healthy child.

Five Fertility Factors video

Five Fertility Factors
However, the relationship between alcohol and fertility isn’t easy to define. There are differences in how scientific studies measure and classify alcohol consumption – for example, what amount of alcohol consumption a study is considering to be ‘moderate’. Also, when study participants are asked to report how much they drink, they often underestimate the amount.

But the research evidence is clear that heavy drinking affects fertility, by increasing the length of time it takes to get pregnant and reducing the chances of having a healthy baby. We’re not just talking about a woman’s drinking either. Hassan & Killick (2004) found that the time taken to conceive was significantly longer if a woman’s male partner drank more than 20 units of alcohol per week.[1] Another study found that men and women undergoing IVF treatment who both drank six units of alcohol or more per week significantly reduced their chances of having a baby.[2]

Overall, there is enough evidence that alcohol has a negative effect on fertility for the National Health and Medical Research Council to recommend that women trying to get pregnant should not drink alcohol at all.

The Council’s guidelines also say that for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option for the baby.

There is strong scientific evidence that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm the developing baby. Alcohol has been associated with a higher risk of miscarriage, pre-term labour, and the reduced growth or death of the developing baby.[3] It has also been associated with adverse effects on the development of the embryo and foetus during all stages of pregnancy. These effects – known as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders – range from physical anomalies to behavioural and cognitive defects.

The type and extent of damage to a child is related to the timing, level and duration of his or her exposure to alcohol in utero. There are indications that a pregnant woman drinking one to two units of alcohol per day negatively affects the child’s psychomotor development.

Women drinking six or more standard drinks per day are at risk of having a child with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is associated with a distinctive range of features, which can include:

  • Low birth weight
  • Smaller than normal head circumference
  • Small eyes
  • Underdeveloped vertical ridges that run from the nose to the upper lip
  • Thinner than normal upper lip
  • Small lower jaw
  • Heart defects.

Children with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome can have:

  • Low IQ
  • Developmental delay
  • Behaviour problems such as difficulties with attention
  • Learning difficulties
  • Memory problems.

In Australia, a unit of alcohol is 12.7ml, while in the UK it is 10ml. A 150ml glass of wine has about 1.5 units of alcohol, while a 285ml glass of beer (called a pot, middy or schooner, depending on where you live in Australia!) has 1.1 units.

For more information about Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, see the Better Health Channel.

Need help to reduce or stop drinking? Visit the Australian Drug Information Network for a list of national and state services in Australia.

For more information about what can affect your chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy baby, visit the Your Fertility website at www.yourfertility.org.au


[1] Hassan MAM, Killick SR. Negative lifestyle is associated with significant reduction in fecundity. Fertility and Sterility, 2004;81(2):384-92.
[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/oct/20/alcohol-hinders-baby-ivf
] ESHRE Task Force on Ethics and Law Lifestyle-related factors and access to medically assisted reproduction, Human Reproduction, 2010, Vol 00, p.3

Louise Johnson

For the past seven years, Louise Johnson has been the Chief Executive Officer for the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA) which administers aspects of the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act 2008. VARTA is the lead agency of the Fertility Coalition, with other members being Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, Andrology Australia and The Robinson Institute. The Fertility Coalition is running the Your Fertility campaign, a national initiative aimed at informing people about the key factors that affect the ability to conceive and have healthy children.

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