Safety Concerns Regarding Binge Drinking in Pregnancy: A Review

Birth Defects Res A Clin Mol Teratol. 2012 Aug;94(8):570-5. doi: 10.1002/bdra.23034. Epub 2012 Jun 18.


Background: There is ongoing debate about the risks to the fetus associated with maternal binge drinking. This makes it difficult to counsel patients about the potential risks associated with their use of alcohol during pregnancy.

Methods: This article reviews the literature on animal and human studies regarding binge drinking (four to five drinks at one time in humans, or the equivalent in laboratory animals).

Results: Animal studies provide evidence that high doses of alcohol over a short period of time can be more damaging than lower doses over a long period of time. Human data are more inconsistent, especially in terms of the association with malformations. Although neurobehavioral effects are the most commonly reported adverse outcome, some studies do not find such an association. Conclusions are confounded by the design of many studies, which fail to document pattern and total amount of alcohol consumption at one time. In addition, it has been suggested there is a bias against the null effect in publications.

Conclusion: Although the evidence in humans is not conclusive, the incidence of binge exposures in pregnancy is high, and it appears prudent to counsel patients to avoid this exposure whenever possible. Women inadvertently exposed to a single binge episode of alcohol early in the first trimester before pregnancy recognition can be reassured that the risks for adverse effects in their baby are likely low if they are able to discontinue use for the duration of the pregnancy. Unfortunately, there may be some residual fetal risk.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Binge Drinking / complications*
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / etiology*
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / physiopathology
  • Fetus
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Maternal Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Pregnancy
  • Publication Bias
  • Research Design
  • Risk Factors


  • Ethanol