When I first found out I was pregnant, I was overjoyed. Then, a scary thought hit me – I had just had a few (err – more than a few) drinks the weekend before.
A few doctors claim that a glass of wine here and there won’t hurt, but the general rule is clear: no drinking when you’re pregnant. But what about before you even know you’re pregnant?
For me, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I scheduled an emergency appointment with my gynecologist and agonizingly told him that I had had one too many drinks the weekend before I got a positive pregnancy test. His words were soothing: “Don’t worry, that happens all the time. Before a missed period, there’s nothing you can do that will either hurt or help a pregnancy along.”
I felt a sigh of relief, but couldn’t help but wonder – why doesn’t alcohol hurt a brand new pregnancy?
The Development of the Placenta
If you don’t already know, pregnancy is calculated in weeks from the date of the first day of your last period. That's because the date of ovulation and conception are really hard for a doctor to pinpoint. The signs of menstruation are much easier to spot, so doctors count that as week one. In fact, you won’t actually conceive your baby until week two or three, depending on the length of your cycle.
By the time your period is actually due, you’re already entering your fourth week. Many women don’t even test until they actually miss that period, meaning they won’t find out until they’re well into the fourth or even fifth week.
According to Kara Manglani, CNM, a midwife and author of the blog TheFertileTimes.com, however, if women consume alcohol during that time there is likely no effect on the pregnancy. “That’s because the placenta doesn’t develop until after the first missed period,” she says. “During this time any food or alcohol a woman consumes is not passed to the baby.”
The placenta is an organ that provides oxygen and nutrients to your growing baby. But, before week five or six, it’s simply a ball of cells. At conception (when sperm meets egg), the cells begin dividing rapidly. Then, as the fertilized egg implants in the uterus, some of those cells start to form the placenta, while others begin to form the embryo. By week eight, the developing embryo is called a fetus and the placenta is fully formed and functioning to provide nutrients to the embryo.
Your Body’s Natural Defense Mechanism
Interestingly, your body has a natural defense mechanism in place to keep you from injecting alcohol and other toxins once they can actually start affecting your baby. It’s called morning sickness – and it probably happens more than just in the morning. “Once the first missed period occurs, nausea sets in to encourage women to avoid potential toxins, such as alcohol,” says Manglani.
It’s true that once you’re in the throes of morning sickness, you won’t even want to be in the same room as a strong drink. Looking at it as nature’s way to keep your baby safe is an interesting new take on an otherwise unpleasant symptom.
Avoid Binge Drinking When Trying to Conceive
Manglani warns that women should avoid binge drinking when trying to get pregnant. Not only is binge drinking bad for your overall health, it also directly affects fertility by inhibiting ovulation and implantation. That doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a few drinks if you’re trying to get pregnant, though. Binge drinking is defined as drinking that brings your blood alcohol level to 0.08 grams percent, or having about four or more drinks in about two hours, according to the CDC. A glass of wine after work doesn’t come close.
In short, don’t panic if you had a few too many drinks before you knew you were pregnant. Be sure to let your doctor know, but rest assured that your little one is probably doing just fine.