What Are the Risks of Alcohol, Marijuana or Cigarette Smoking While Pregnant?
In my genetic counseling career spanning twenty four years, I have talked to more than 17,000 pregnant women about teratogens, or anything a pregnant woman is exposed to that could negatively affect the development of the fetus. As the Director of MotherToBaby North Texas, Texas Teratogen Information Service, the three most common questions I hear from worried callers are: what happens if I drink alcohol while pregnant? What happens if I smoke cigarettes while pregnant? What happens if I smoke marijuana while pregnant?
As a genetic counselor working with pregnant mothers every day, each patient phone call and meeting is different, and we do our best to gather all of the information and provide a personal risk assessment. My message to women is not to panic but to know there are resources to help if you are concerned. Genetic counselors can provide information and support related to exposures to alcohol, marijuana and tobacco and are available if you have questions about your particular pregnancy.
What are the Risks of Drinking Alcohol While Pregnant?
Many women consume some level of alcohol before knowing that they are pregnant, and there is no doubt that the most common call I receive involves the use of alcohol. We know alcohol easily crosses the placenta, and the possible risks to a pregnancy will differ depending on timing and quantity of use. For example, moderate alcohol use may be associated with an increased risk for miscarriage, minor birth defects and learning problems. Heavy alcohol use can result in more significant concerns such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the baby.
Because there is no known level of alcohol use during pregnancy that is considered safe, my advice is to avoid alcohol once a pregnancy is confirmed. For women that have difficulty managing alcohol consumption, genetic counselors can connect patients to resources that may help.
What are the Risks of Smoking While Pregnant?
While many women will stop smoking when they find out they are pregnant, it can be difficult, even with the happy motivator of being pregnant and the strong desire to do so. Because of this, with guidance from their doctor, some women will attempt to reduce their smoking.
Smoking tobacco or marijuana reduces the oxygen and blood flow to the placenta and may increase the risk for a miscarriage. Heavy smoking of tobacco or marijuana is associated with problems with babies’ growth and may also be related to other problems.
How Can I Learn More About My Personal Risk?
Genetic counselors can help and are available to discuss concerns, provide information and support, and connect expectant mothers with resources.
While heavy exposure to alcohol and cigarettes can increase the risk of having a baby with a birth defect or other health issues, genetic counselors can help and are available to discuss concerns, provide information and support, and connect expectant mothers with resources. If you have concerns about exposure risk during pregnancy you can find a genetic counselor in your area using NSGC’s Find A Genetic Counselor tool or you can call 866-626-6847 to talk to a MotherToBaby teratogen specialist.
Lori Wolfe, MS, CGC is a member of NSGC’s Prenatal Special Interest Group and is Director of MotherToBaby North Texas, Texas Teratogen Information Service.