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Alcohol consumption

Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the unborn baby, and the more alcohol is consumed, the greater the risk. New guidelines on drinking were proposed by the UK Government and published in January 2016. They state that if pregnant or planning a pregnancy, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all, to keep risks to the baby to a minimum.

In the UK many women (19%) either do not drink alcohol or stop drinking during pregnancy (40%). The risk of harm to the baby is likely to be low if the woman has drunk only small amounts of alcohol before she knew she was pregnant or during pregnancy.

Women who find out they are pregnant after already having drunk during pregnancy should avoid further drinking but in most cases it is unlikely that their baby has been affected.

Alcohol can have a wide range of impacts on the unborn baby, known under the umbrella term of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Drinking heavily during pregnancy can cause the baby to develop FAS, a serious condition causing:

  • Restricted growth
  • Facial abnormalities
  • Learning and behavioural disorders, which may be lifelong

The risks of low birth weight, preterm birth and being small for gestational age may increase in mothers drinking more than 1-2 units/day in pregnancy. It is important that women do not underestimate their actual consumption (See What is a unit, below).

What is a unit?

  • 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol (ethanol)
  • One 25ml single measure of whisky (ABV 40%)
  • One-third of a pint of beer (ABV 5-6%)
  • Half of a standard (175ml) glass of wine (ABV 12%)

More examples

  • Beer, cider, lager (5%) bottle, 330 ml = 1.7 units
  • Beer, cider, lager (5%) pint, 568ml = 2.8 units
  • Spirits (38/40%) small measure, 25 ml = 1 unit
  • Sherry, port (17.5-20%) standard measure, 50ml = 0.9-1 unit
  • Red/white/rose wine (11-14%) small glass, 125ml = 1.4-1.75 units
  • Red/white/rose wine (11-14%) standard glass, 175ml = 1.9- 2.5 units

Red/white/rose wine (11-14%) large glass, 250ml = 2.8-3.5 units



No. of units = strength (ABV%) x volume (ml) ÷ 1000 eg, a pint of Stella Artois = (5.2 x 568 ÷ 1000) = 2.95 units

In more general terms, the guidelines propose that for both men and women:

  • It is safest not to drink regularly more than 14 units per week
  • If drinking this amount, it should be spread over three days or more. One or two heavy drinking sessions increases the risks of death from long term illnesses, accidents and injuries
  • The risk of developing a range of illnesses e.g. cancers of the mouth, throat and breast, heart disease, liver disease and epilepsy, with any amount drunk on a regular basis
  • A good way to cut down the amount of alcohol consumed is to have several drink-free days each week

Some people, such as young adults, older people, those with low body weight, those with other health problems and those taking medicines or other drugs, are more likely to be affected more by alcohol and should be more careful of their level of drinking on one occasion (commonly known as binge drinking)

The Practising Midwife featured article

Alcohol and pregnancy: a dangerous cocktail Joanne Poskitt, Susan Fleisher. TPM 2015; 18 (11) 21 - 25



UK Chief Medical Officers' Alcohol Guidelines Review: Summary of proposed new guidelines

Health & Social Care Information Centre. Statistics on alcohol, England 2015.

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