Alcohol, Drugs and Pregnancy

When you drink, alcohol passes from your blood through the placenta and to your baby. A baby’s liver is one of the last organs to develop fully and does not mature until the last half of pregnancy. Your baby cannot process alcohol as well as you can and too much exposure to alcohol can seriously affect your baby’s development. Because of this risk, avoid drinking alcohol if you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

If you choose to drink, protect your baby by not drinking more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week, and don’t get drunk. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) advises women who are pregnant to avoid alcohol in the first three months in particular, because of the increased risk of miscarriage.  

Drinking isn’t just dangerous for the baby in the first three months: it can affect your baby throughout pregnancy. If you drink heavily during pregnancy, your baby could develop a group of problems known as foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children with this syndrome have: 

  • restricted growth
  • facial abnormalities
  • learning and behavioural disorders

Binge drinking and drinking more than one or two units once or twice a week may be associated with lesser forms of FAS. The risk is likely to be greater the more you drink. If you are drinking with friends:

  • find a non-alcoholic drink that you enjoy
  • sip any alcohol you do drink slowly to make it last
  • don’t let people pressure you into drinking
  • avoid getting drunk

Pills and medicines

Some medicines, including common painkillers, can harm your baby’s health. Other medicines are safe, such as medication to treat long-term conditions such as asthma, overactive thyroid, underactive thryroid, diabetes and epilepsy. To be sure a medicine is safe in pregnancy: 

  • always check with your doctor, midwife or pharmacist before taking any medicine
  • make sure your doctor, dentist or other healthcare professional knows you’re pregnant before they prescribe anything or give you treatment
  • talk to your doctor immediately if you take regular medication, ideally before you start trying for a baby or as soon as you find out you are pregnant
  • use as few over-the-counter medicines as possible

Medicines and treatments that are usually safe include:

  • paracetamol
  • most antibiotics
  • dental treatments, including local anaesthetics
  • some types of vaccinations, including tetanus and flu
  • nicotine replacement therapy (NRT)

However, always check with your midwife, doctor or pharmacist first. 

Illegal drugs

Illegal drugs, such as cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin can harm your baby. If you use any of these drugs, it’s important to talk to your maternity team straight away so they can give you advice and support to help you stop. They can also refer you to additional support. For example, some dependent drug users need medication to stabilise or come off illegal drugs to keep the baby safe.

Herbal and homeopathic remedies and aromatherapy

Not all “natural” remedies are safe in pregnancy. If you decide to use herbal or homeopathic remedies or aromatherapy, contact the Institute for Complementary Medicine to make sure that your practitioner is qualified. Tell the practitioner that you are pregnant, and tell your pharmacist and midwife or doctor which herbal, homeopathic or aromatherapy remedies you are using.