health professionals

Information for health professionals

If you are a health professional who works with people who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding, you can support them by asking about their alcohol consumption, providing accurate information about the risks of alcohol exposure in pregnancy and while breastfeeding, and providing advice and support to stop drinking or cut back.

Facts at a glance

  1. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) advises that people who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink any alcohol. Any alcohol consumed passes directly to the developing baby  at every stage of pregnancy.
  2. Alcohol at any stage of pregnancy can damage the developing brain and organs (including the heart, kidney and lungs) and lead to structural or functional anomalies.
  3. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of stillbirth, and the baby being small for gestational age, born prematurely, or having low birth weight.
  4. Alcohol exposure during pregnancy can cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), the leading non-genetic developmental disability in Australia.
  5. Not drinking any alcohol while breastfeeding is safest. Alcohol in breast milk can affect the baby’s brain and spinal cord which continue to develop after the baby is born.

NHMRC Alcohol Guidelines

Resources you can share with families

Further information and resources you can share with families during consultations or print for your clinic are available.

Public resources

Frequently asked questions

Q1 Is there any safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy?

Alcohol passes directly to the developing embryo or fetus at every stage of pregnancy. A variety of maternal and fetal factors can influence the effects of alcohol. This means the risk for each pregnancy is different, and it is not possible for research to determine a safe amount of alcohol consumption.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australian Alcohol Guidelines advise that people who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not consume any alcohol.

Q2 What are the impacts of alcohol consumption at different stages of pregnancy?

Alcohol consumption at any stage of pregnancy can result in adverse outcomes, including stillbirth, babies being small for gestational age, born prematurely, or having low birth weight.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can also cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that impacts the brain and body in a range of ways.

Alcohol exposure can impact brain development, which starts very early and continues throughout pregnancy.

Alcohol during pregnancy can also impact the development of different organs and systems of the body (including the heart, kidneys and lungs), which happens at every stage of pregnancy. This can lead to structural or functional anomalies.

Although alcohol exposure can impact the developing baby at any stage of pregnancy, there are critical periods that are extra sensitive. This includes very early in pregnancy (3-8 weeks post-conception), when the embryo undergoes rapid cell division and differentiation to provide the foundations of the body systems.

Q3 What should I do if I think a person might have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)?

If you think a person might have FASD, you should encourage and arrange for them to undergo a diagnostic assessment.

FASD is assessed and diagnosed using criteria based on prenatal alcohol exposure, impairment in neurodevelopmental domains, and the presence of sentinel facial features.

The Australian Guide to the assessment and diagnosis of FASD provides detailed information on clinical assessment, diagnosis, and management of FASD. To visit, click here.

People with FASD can experience challenges in daily activities throughout their lives, and need support from family and loved ones, health professionals, and other support services.

FASD is recognised by the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Q4 How should I talk to people who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy about alcohol?

Health professionals are a key, trusted source of information about alcohol, pregnancy and breastfeeding. Australian research has found that people who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding want health professionals to ask them about alcohol consumption, and want clear and accurate information about the risks.

It’s important not to assume that a person knows not to drink alcohol during pregnancy or that they aren’t drinking. There are many factors that can influence whether someone consumes alcohol during pregnancy.

For example, they may have been drinking before they knew they were pregnant, or they may have been getting mixed messages about alcohol and pregnancy from family, friends or health professionals.

It is crucial to avoid judgment, stigma or shame when asking about alcohol consumption.

It is best to use a validated tool to assess a person’s alcohol use, as your advice should vary depending on their current level of use. For example, it may be unsafe for a person drinking at high levels to stop drinking or cut back without medical support. The AUDIT-C is a fast and easy-to-use tool.

You should ask about a person’s level of alcohol use before finding out they were pregnant (pre-recognition), as well as after finding out (post-recognition), as this may vary.

If someone is drinking at high levels, stopping drinking suddenly may be dangerous to their health and the health of their developing baby. It’s important to identify a person in this situation and ensure they receive appropriate support.

If a person needs further support to stop drinking or reduce their alcohol intake, support services can be found here.

Q5 What are the impacts of alcohol consumption while breastfeeding?

For people who are breastfeeding, not drinking alcohol is safest for their baby.

Alcohol passes into breastmilk. Breastmilk has the same alcohol concentration as the blood of the person breastfeeding within 30-60 minutes of them consuming alcohol and is only alcohol-free when the person’s blood alcohol level returns to zero. It can take 2 hours for blood alcohol to return to zero after one standard drink.

Even a small amount of alcohol while breastfeeding can lead to reduced breastmilk production and consumption by the baby, disruptions in the baby’s sleep, impacts on their psychomotor development, and impacts on their cognitive ability in early childhood.