Although it’s widely accepted and commonly understood that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm the baby, what if you are unaware you are pregnant? Drinking in early pregnancy without knowing is quite common because individuals simply have not yet discovered they are, in fact, expecting.

The NHS recommends that you should not drink any alcohol if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant to keep the risks of such harm to a minimum.

Of course, not every pregnancy is planned, and some people may well have been drinking in early pregnancy without knowing. So what are the risks if you think, ‘I was drinking before I knew I was pregnant’?


Understanding The Early Stages of Pregnancy

The first trimester officially begins on the first day of your last period. It’s important to note, though, that for the first couple of weeks of this time, you are not actually pregnant. Typically, you will start to ovulate around 14 days after the start of your period, although this can be slightly shorter or longer, depending on your menstrual cycle. The egg may be fertilised by sperm within 24 hours of ovulation, and the fertilised egg will implant 5 to 6 days after that. This is when pregnancy really begins.

Women don’t usually take a pregnancy test until some time after their first missed period, however, meaning many people do not find out until weeks 4 onwards, with research in the US suggesting the average time of pregnancy awareness is at 5 and a half weeks.

The mother might not be showing much (if at all) by the end of the first trimester, which lasts for 12 weeks, but plenty is going on inside and healthy development is vital.

By the end of 4 weeks:

  • All major organs begin to form.
  • The neural tube, which becomes the brain and spinal cord, begins to form.
  • The digestive system, the heart, and the circulatory system begin to form.
  • The heart is beating.

By the end of 8 weeks:

  • All major body systems continue to develop and function.
  • The main organs continue to develop.
  • The eyes, nose, mouth and ears become more distinct.

During weeks 9-12, the embryo becomes a foetus and continues to grow. It is most vulnerable during the first 12 weeks when the major systems and organs are forming. Development can be affected by exposure to toxic substances, including alcohol, tobacco and drugs.


How Alcohol Can Affect Early Foetal Development

Alcohol in the mother’s bloodstream can pass through the umbilical cord to the embryo or foetus, which can have a wide range of harmful effects. Alcohol can also pass directly through the placenta. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can potentially lead to miscarriage or stillbirth. Even if the pregnancy survives and the baby is born, they may suffer from a range of physical, mental and behavioural disabilities collectively known as foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

The UK’s National Organisation for FASD provides the following description:

“FASD results when prenatal alcohol exposure affects the developing brain and body. FASD is a spectrum. Each person with FASD is affected differently. While more than 400 conditions can co-occur, FASD is, at its core, a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition. All people with FASD have many strengths. Early diagnosis and appropriate support are essential, especially for executive functioning.”

It adds that foetal alcohol spectrum disorder can include more than 400 known conditions and is thought to affect between 2-4% of people in the UK.


The Potential Risks of Drinking in Early Pregnancy Without Knowing

One study found that exposure to alcohol increased the risk of spontaneous abortion (miscarriage). Participants who were exposed to alcohol up until 29 days of gestation had a 37% greater risk compared to those who didn’t drink at all. It also found that each additional week of alcohol exposure during pregnancy was associated with an average 8% increase in risk.

While there are many potential issues linked to the full spectrum of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, some could include the following:

  • Abnormal facial features.
  • Small head size.
  • Stunted growth.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Impaired memory.
  • Learning disabilities.
  • Hyperactive behaviour and difficulty with attention.
  • Delays with speech and language development.
  • IQ and reasoning issues.
  • Difficulties in school.
  • Problems with sight and hearing.
  • Sleeping and feeding issues as a baby.
  • Issues with heart, kidney and bone development.


What to Do if You Drank Before Knowing You Were Pregnant

‘I just found out I’m pregnant, and I’ve been drinking!’ This can be a very common concern for many people upon finding out they are pregnant. The above-mentioned risks can be very scary, but you should try not to worry, especially if you only drank moderately during the first few weeks of pregnancy. You should also remember that for the first two weeks, as it is usually reckoned, you are not actually pregnant.

If you drank at all during pregnancy, especially if you drank heavily and further into the pregnancy, you should talk to your doctor, midwife or healthcare team about your worries. In any case, you should definitely try to cut out drinking entirely as soon as you find out you are pregnant – or in advance if you are trying for a baby. There is no completely safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, so it is always best to err on the side of caution.

As the baby develops throughout the pregnancy, it is never too late to quit drinking and lessen the potential harm. If you find this difficult, you might want to consider getting professional help.


Get Help Today

If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, it is always best not to drink at all. However, if you think you might have a problem controlling your alcohol consumption – up to and including alcohol dependency and addiction – this can prove very challenging.

If you need help managing your alcohol intake, contact Ocean Recovery today. We offer holistic rehab treatment plans designed to address every aspect of substance misuse and addiction and can help you sober up safely and achieve a full and long-lasting recovery.

John Gillen - Author - Last updated: February 15, 2024

John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.