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April 2006

Spinning the Bottle

This April marks the 20th annual observance of Alcohol Awareness Month, which is significant given that more than 21 million adults abused alcohol or were alcohol dependent1 and nearly half of U.S. adults reported a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking2 in 2003.

And while alcohol oftentimes factors into the three leading causes of death (motor vehicle accidents, homicides and suicides), it too plays a significant role in women’s health, pregnancy and infant health and care.

Overall, women consume less alcohol than men, but are more likely to experience adverse consequences related to drinking. The female body is much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and can be more easily damaged, including serious heart, brain and liver problems.

With pregnancy, complications associated with drinking multiply, and the negative affects of alcohol extend beyond the mother to her unborn child. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is an umbrella term describing the physical and mental effects on babies exposed to prenatal consumption of alcohol. The physical effects and financial burdens associated with FASD often last a lifetime. 

Though incurable, FASD is 100 percent preventable, yet annually thousands of women continue drinking during pregnancy. And no amount of alcohol is considered safe. Nationally, 40,000 infants each year - one out of every 100 live births - are affected by FASD3. Additionally, the risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is heightened when alcohol is consumed in the months prior to and just after conception.

According to the 2003 NC Pregnancy Risk Assessment System, 90 percent of pregnant women in North Carolina quit drinking upon learning they were pregnant. Nearly 5,000, though, consumed alcohol in their final trimester.

The numbers could be worse. The same study revealed that more than 20 percent of women reported receiving no warnings from medical providers regarding the dangers of consuming alcohol during pregnancy.

Though simply informing women of these dangers may not be enough, as is evident by the 40,000 annual cases of FASD nationwide.  Health educators and providers need to learn why some women choose to drink during pregnancy (stress, emotional health, violence etc.) and instead try to help them better address these problems as well.

And the risk to babies does not end at birth. Some cultures encourage lactating women to drink alcohol to optimize milk production and infant nutrition, but in actuality, breastfeeding mothers should continue to avoid drinking. Studies have shown that alcohol reduces milk production and is passed from mother to child through breast milk, potentially influencing an infant’s sleep and motor development.

When parents are under the influence, judgment and reflexes are impaired which can have detrimental effects on their infant caretaking, particularly if they choose to sleep with their baby. Parents are advised not to drink and sleep with their infants to prevent accidental suffocation or strangulation infant deaths. Babies should be placed to sleep on their backs in their own crib or bassinet to help reduce the likelihood of alcohol-related infant deaths.

Help is available, statewide, for pregnant women who are having difficulty stopping drinking on their own, as well as for health and social service professionals who work with pregnant women who use alcohol. For more information, contact Melissa Godwin, Perinatal Substance Use Specialist, at the North Carolina Family Health Resource Line, 1-800-367-2229.      
Click here for free educational materials.

Opens in new window Click here for more information on Alcohol Awareness Month.

1U.S. Department of Health and Human Service
2 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
3National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

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Last updated: April 2006


At a glance
Upon becoming pregnant

  • 90.1% of NC women quit using alcohol
  • 4.3% of NC women reduced alcohol use
  • 5.6% of NC women drank the same or more

2003 NC PRAMS survey

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