It happens: women accidentally drink alcohol unaware they're pregnant
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Many women know that alcohol can be harmful to an unborn baby and they plan to abstain once they're pregnant. Sometimes, however, a woman drinks alcohol before she knows she's pregnant and then is afraid of the ramifications.
This is exactly what happened to Jessica Wilder, who attended her brother's wedding when she was unknowingly about three weeks pregnant. At the reception, there was an open bar and Wilder says she consumed at least six cocktails throughout the evening.
When she found out 10 days later that she was pregnant, she was horrified.
"I read everything I could find about drinking in the very early stages of pregnancy and even though I read a lot of info that said it most likely would be fine, it wasn't until my daughter was born healthy that I was convinced," says Wilder. "She's 4 now and already reading so I'm going to finally assume I didn't harm her by drinking when I was pregnant."
Wilder says she was much more careful when she was hoping to conceive her second child, and quit drinking altogether while she and her husband were "trying."
"It wasn't worth the stress to drink and then worry that I might be pregnant, so I just quit for a few months, got pregnant, had my son and then eventually went back to drinking occasionally," she says.
In "What To Expect When You're Expecting," authors Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel comfort women by writing that it's difficult to harm a very early embryo with alcohol because the embryo doesn't implant – and therefore isn't connected to maternal blood supply – until approximately two weeks after conception. At that time, most women become aware of the pregnancy anyway and start taking extra-good care of themselves.
However, Murkoff and Mazel do recommend that women who are planning to become pregnant stop drinking entirely or at least limit it to very little. They say that while it's unlikely that alcohol consumed before a woman knows she's pregnant will damage a baby, it's best to take the safest approach possible – particularly if a woman is actively trying to conceive.
The fact is, there is very little research suggesting that moderate alcohol consumption is harmful to embryos, but this is simply because it's not possible to conduct medical research on pregnant women. Hence, it has been difficult for doctors to draw strong scientific conclusions regarding safe levels of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
Therefore, most doctors err on the side of caution and generally recommend alcohol abstinence.
Jackie Tillet is a certified nurse midwife (CNM) at Aurora Sinai who recommends abstinence even though Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is rare, and that it's usually seen after a mother binge drinks regularly or drinks every day during her pregnancy.
"If a woman takes care of herself as soon as she finds out she's pregnant, having drank before knowing she was pregnant is not a reason to terminate a pregnancy or live in fear throughout the pregnancy," says Tillet.
Willa Robertson also consumed alcohol when she was unknowingly pregnant. She started having early contractions at 15 weeks and was put on strict bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy.
"I know the chances are slim that this happened because I drank before I knew I was pregnant, but when I was on bed rest I had a lot of time to think and I kept wondering if maybe getting drunk did have something to do with it," she says. "I felt guilty."
The good news, according to Tillet, is that women can find out that they're pregnant earlier than they used to which helps to cease drinking and other unhealthy behaviors earlier than ever.
"Women used to not find out they were pregnant until after they missed a second period and now they can find out after missing just one," she says.
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