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I drank before I knew I was pregnant

Accidentally drinking while pregnant never really occurred to me, but it should have.
/ Source: TODAY Parenting Team

Editor's note: This story was first published in 2016. On June 17, 2021, the World Health Organization sparked an outcry when a draft of its "Global Alcohol Action Plan" suggested that all women of childbearing age — not just those who are pregnant — abstain from alcohol, just in case.

Endless glasses of crisp, delicious champagne were pouring down my throat and I wasn’t even tipsy and I certainly wasn’t feeling sick.

I am one of those people who rarely drinks, not because I disapprove of it, but because it makes me sick. It’s unpredictable — sometimes half a glass of wine will give me a migraine. Two glasses and I risk spending the entire next day in bed.

So, the destination wedding was turning out to be the best party I had enjoyed in a long time; for the first time in years, I was able to enjoy the alcohol that was being served in frightening quantities.

I laughed at my close friend, the bride, who wasn’t drinking because she hoped she was pregnant and was thus avoiding even a sip of alcohol. The thought of accidentally drinking while pregnant is one that never really occurred to me, but it probably should have: I learned a short time later that I was pregnant.

There’s been a firestorm of outrage over caution from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about women who drink alcohol when they might, possibly, get pregnant.

“There is no known safe amount of alcohol — even beer or wine — that is safe for a woman to drink at any stage of pregnancy,” the CDC says. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a similar warning, citing longstanding advice that no one knows if even one drink is too much.

I'm the woman the CDC was worried about.

The author with her daughter, Kate, at 5 months.
The author with her daughter, Kate, at 5 months.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a serious disorder. If women don’t miscarry, their babies can be physically, mentally and behaviorally disabled. Kids can have distorted facial features, stunted growth, vision problems and learning deficits.

Most women who know they are pregnant avoid alcohol if they can. They know it’s not good for the baby. Women frequently agonize together over whether it’s OK to take ibuprofen when they’re pregnant, or eat fish, or soft cheese. They worry about whether they’re exercising too much or too little.

But it’s also possible to not know you are pregnant. Younger women may be painfully aware of the odds of being pregnant, but I had been married a long time and unless you’re doing the let’s-time-it-for-conception thing, the thought just isn’t there.

My husband and I had been talking about a child, but there were other distractions in our lives. So the only thing I felt at that wedding was the sheer joy of being able to drink with impunity for a change.

It wasn’t until I returned home and began packing for another short trip that it struck me. Could I be? I waited a few more days before even daring to buy the pregnancy test and sure enough, I was.

Then I remembered the booze.

I am a health reporter so the implications struck me immediately. I panicked and scheduled an immediate appointment with my gynecologist, who hadn’t wanted to see me until I was sure I was at least six weeks along.

Maggie Fox was relieved when her daughter Kate was born healthy, despite a few days of drinking alcohol before she even knew she was pregnant.
Maggie Fox was relieved when her daughter Kate was born healthy, despite a few days of drinking alcohol before she even knew she was pregnant.Maggie Fox

When it came time for the ultrasound, I begged her to just ensure the baby had a head. She laughed, and proceeded to show me a normal, four-chambered heart and a properly developing skull.

I took care all through the pregnancy, gaining the correct amount of weight, keeping up my exercise routine, eating a variety of foods, avoiding all drugs except Tums and, of course, not drinking alcohol.

And when my daughter was born, she was healthy.

I understand why the CDC has issued its warning. I could have done without those nine months of worry, wondering whether my short fling with the party scene could have cost my beautiful daughter the best start in life possible.

This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.