By Claire GagneUpdated May 10, 2019
You know that alcohol is off limits during pregnancy, but what about while you’re trying to conceive?
Doctors recommend that women don’t drink when trying to conceive. But for some couples, getting pregnant can take a long time, and the prospect of not having a celebratory drink or a glass of wine after work for months on end may not seem entirely plausible. So what are women to do?
First, it’s important to look at the recommendations and the reasons for them. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction has developed guidelines for all Canadians to promote safe drinking. These guidelines say that if you’re pregnant, planning to become pregnant or breastfeeding, the safest choice is to not drink at all.
Jonathan Bertram, a family and addictions medicine physician at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, supports the guidelines. He likens abstaining from alcohol while you’re trying to conceive to taking folic acid to prevent neural tube defects.
“It’s really about risk management,” he says. “The greatest risk from exposure to alcohol is in the first trimester.” The risk he is talking about is for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which are a group of physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities that can arise in a child after alcohol exposure in utero. During the early days of the first trimester, women often don’t even know they’re pregnant, so they might not know the damage they’re doing. “It won’t necessarily cause complications, but it’s so unpredictable and there’s so much at stake,” says Bertram.
If you’re still not sure you can swear off alcohol altogether (after all, you’ll have at least another nine months to go once you get pregnant), Sonya Kashyap, medical director of Genesis Fertility in Vancouver, says that, while no alcohol is best, moderate drinking can be OK—if you’re tracking your cycle and being strategic about when you imbibe. The risk to the baby starts after implantation. If your cycle is regular and you’re tracking it well, you could focus on abstaining from alcohol only after ovulation.
It’s not just the effects on the baby you need to consider, though. Kashyap says that women who are trying to conceive shouldn’t consume more than three or four alcoholic beverages in a week as it may affect fertility. Though there isn’t much solid research on alcohol consumption and fertility, it appears that excess consumption can affect pregnancy rates, and the recommendation of no more than three or four drinks is what the medical community generally advises. Even among men, excess alcohol consumption can cause problems. Drinking too much can affect sperm count, motility (the ability of sperm to swim) and morphology (the size and shape of the sperm), so Kashyap advises men to limit drinking in the months before they’re planning to conceive and while trying.
Of course, Kashyap and Bertram agree on one thing: “There is no safe amount of alcohol in pregnancy.”