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Researchers, child psychologists, policy makers and other theorists have demonstrated increased interest in the broad topic of drinking alcohol during pregnancy and the health risks associated with this behavior.
Indeed, some of the available literature has focused attention to not only evaluating the unnecessary risks posed to the unborn child by engaging in drinking while pregnant, but also providing a framework through which women can understand how they could contribute to long-term health, behavioral and personality problems of their children by drinking during pregnancy (Zammit et al., 2008).
It has, however, proved difficult to occasion a positive behavior change in women who drinks during pregnancy due to the reason that drinking as a social behavior is culturally defined, thus different cultures perceives the issue differently in the absence of a standardized yardstick to guide and direct policy interventions (Alvik et al., 2006).
This paper purposes to critically discuss the issue of drinking during pregnancy with a view to explain why it poses unnecessary risks to the development of the unborn baby.
Nearly all civilizations across the world have some recorded episodes of alcohol use as a social unifier, and hence its dependence to maintain the social fabric (Alvik et al., 2006). This cultural orientation have served to entrench to people some misguided perceptions about drinking habits to a point where alcohol has become a national problem in some countries, especially in the developed world.
The long-drawn court battles between beer-manufacturing conglomerates and government and health agencies only serves to demonstrate the fact that alcohol causes more problems to the general population than what may actually be perceived using the knowledge that is held in the public domain (Zammit et al., 2008).
As will be discussed below, the problems and health risks are even exacerbated when pregnant women engage in drinking alcohol since such a habit does not only negatively impact their physical and mental health, but also poses considerable health risks to the developing fetus.
Towards Understanding & Evaluating the Risks Involved
It is imperative to first understand the processes involved when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol so as to have a clearer understanding on the risks involved. When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcoholic beverage passes from the stomach into the blood stream and finally into the developing fetus through the placenta.
In the fetus developing body, alcohol is synthesized and broken down at much slower rate than is normally the case when it is ingested in an adult’s body and, as such, the alcohol level in the fetus’ blood can be higher due to the slow absorption level, and may remain raised for longer periods than the intensity in the mother’s blood (March of Dimes, 2010). This situation can cause the baby to suffer irreparable damage.
It is a well established fact that alcohol use and dependence during pregnancy can impair the healthy development of the fetus. In spite of the fact that many women are well aware that heavy consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can occasion a myriad of birth defects, many do not realize or are ignorant of the fact that moderate or even light drinking can also impair the healthy development of the fetus (March of Dimes, 2010).
Research, according to Alvik et al (2006), has demonstrated that “fetuses exposed to even moderate levels of alcohol show intellectual and behavioral problems” (p. 1). The high level of chemicals and other toxics contained in alcohol has been largely blamed for impairing the faculties charged with cognitive and behavioral development in neonates, a factor that is comparatively related to cognitive, personality, and behavioral impairment as children progresses through the lifespan.
Heavy drinking early in pregnancy has been positively associated with severe neurobehavioral shortfalls, emotional problems, anxiety, depression, aggressive behavior, youth antisocial behavior, discipline and character development problems, and self-perceived learning difficulties both at school and home (Alvik et al., 2006; Buddy, 2010). Such impairments end up negatively impacting the social fabric, and demonstrate why drinking in pregnancy presents unnecessary risks to the development of the unborn baby.
Animal studies have revealed enhanced brain damage associated to heavy alcohol exposure, and human studies have also demonstrated that alcohol is responsible for destroying millions of cells found in the brain (Alvik et al., 2006).
These studies reinforce the assumption that drinking during pregnancy, especially during the first and second trimester of pregnancy, can have a devastating effect on the development of the fetus’ brain. The brain is one of the most important constituents of the human body by virtue of the fact that it guides our cognitive and motor capacities, not mentioning the fact that is predominantly involved in guiding our daily experiences within the environment, including socialization processes.
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When the brain is damaged or constrained to develop to the fullest potential, victims will be burdened with negative long-term effects such as inability to socialize, inability to develop their cognitive capacities and, to the extreme end, inability to perform normal daily activities or become productive in life. These are consequences that no woman can, in her right frame of mind, wish her child to acquire and, as such, the only option available is to quit drinking during pregnancy.
In line with brain damage, it is also known that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause impairments involving the heart, face, limbs, eyes, and other vital body organs (March of Dimes, 2010; Alvik et al., 2006). The cruelest of these effects is known as the fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a condition that is commonly known to lead to mental retardation.
According to March of Dimes (2010), “babies with FAS are abnormally small at birth and usually do not catch up on growth as they get older…They have characteristic facial features, including small eyes, a thin upper lip and a smooth skin in place of the normal groove between the nose and upper lip” (para. 8).
Critical organs such as the heart and brain may not form or function properly, leading to undesirable characteristics such as poor coordination, inattentiveness, mental disability, and emotional and behavioral challenges. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the negative effects of FAS, mostly occasioned by indulgence in binge drinking, last a lifetime.
For instance, adolescents and adults with this condition are not only unable to sustain a job and live independently, but they are at a higher risk of developing psychological and behavioral problems, not mentioning that such individuals are more likely to become criminals (March of Dimes, 2010). The above underlines the risks involved in drinking during pregnancy, especially in espousing the long-term effects caused to the child by prenatal exposure to alcohol.
Alcohol consumption during pregnancy enhances the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery, especially in women who have a deep-rooted drinking problem.
A 2008 survey conducted on Dutch women revealed that women who drink heavily during the initial four months of pregnancy had an estimated 56 percent elevated risk for delivering a stillbirth than their counterparts who did not indulge in heavy drinking (March of Dimes, 2010). Another study conducted in 2008 revealed that women who take five of more units of alcohol per week stood a 70 percent risk of delivering a still born baby than those who never indulged in alcohol during pregnancy.
These statistics are not only shocking, but also demonstrates the depth and magnitude of the risks involved in drinking during pregnancy. More importantly, the statistics demonstrates the fact that such risks to healthy development of the fetus can be completely eliminated if women make conscious decisions not to drink during the span of the pregnancy or, better still, kick out the habit altogether.
Conclusion & Recommendations
This paper has aptly demonstrated the unnecessary risks to the developing fetus and to the child’s long-term development occasioned by drinking during pregnancy.
Not every binge drinker will develop liver cirrhoses in spite of standing a higher risk of developing the disease – and in this particular scenario, not every child will be negatively affected or influenced by prenatal exposure to alcoholic beverages. This perception have made some women to think that it is okay to indulge in drinking during pregnancy as long as one doesn’t get deep into drinking.
However, research and science has demonstrated that no level of drinking, however minimal, can indeed be proved to be safe during pregnancy (Buddy, 2010). A 2001 research study quoted by March of Dimes (2010) “…found that 6- and 7- year-old children of mothers who had as little as one drink a week during pregnancy were more likely than children of non-drinkers to have behavior problems, such as aggressive and delinquent behaviors” (para. 15).
It is therefore highly recommended that women refrain from consuming any form of alcohol as soon as they get the information that they are indeed pregnant. In addition, information on the risks alcohol pose to prenatal development should be made readily available to women of childbearing age to enable them make informed decisions that will go a long way to providing children with the opportunity to have the best start to life.
Alvik, A., Heyerdahl, S., Haldorsen, T., & Lindermann, R. (2006). Alcohol use before and during pregnancy: A population-based study. Acta Obstetricia & Gynecologica Scandinavica, 85(11), 1292-1298. Retrieved from Academic Source Premier Database.
Buddy, T. (2010). Drinking in pregnancy linked to behavioral problems. Web.
March of Dimes. (2010). Drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Web.
Zammit, S.L., Skouteris, H., Wertheim, E., Eleanor, H., Paxton, S.J., & Milgrom, J. (2008). Pregnant women’s alcohol consumption: The predictive utility of intention to drink and pregnancy drinking behavior. Journal of Women’s Health, 17(9), 1513-1522. Retrieved from Academic Source Premier Database.