If you want to conceive and have a healthy baby, it’s time to review your alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol can affect your sex life, it can reduce your fertility, and it has the potential to harm a baby, even during early pregnancy when you might not know you’re pregnant.
Becoming a father is not always easy. If you are a man or if you have a body that produces sperm, drinking alcohol is linked to sexual dysfunction and research suggests it can reduce your sperm count and the quality of your sperm – two factors that can be measured in a semen test. Heavy drinking is particularly harmful.
If you’re a woman or somebody with a uterus and ovaries, drinking alcohol can affect your hormones and your period (menstrual cycle), and research suggests it can make it harder to conceive. If you drink while pregnant, it can increase the chance of miscarriage, stillbirth and health problems for your baby.
Drinking can also contribute to weight gain and being overweight can affect your fertility. Aiming for and maintaining a healthy weight improves fertility. So, if you want a baby, read on to learn how alcohol affects your chance of a healthy pregnancy and child.
How does alcohol affect sperm quality when trying to get pregnant?
There is no evidence that an occasional alcoholic drink, such as one or two standard drinks a week, will affect sperm health but the more you drink, the more it can affect your overall health and fertility.
Research shows heavy drinking can lower testosterone production, reduce libido (interest in sex), make it harder to get an erection and maintain one, and reduce sperm quality. There are different definitions of heavy and risky drinking, however, consuming two to four standard drinks a day on average (14-28 drinks spread across the week) is heavy, and consuming anything beyond four standard drinks on one occasion is risky for your health.
But even drinking three standard drinks per week might be enough to reduce your sperm count. One study of more than 1200 Danish men aged 18-28 found that men who drank five units of alcohol per week (about three beers or three wines) had lower sperm counts and lower sperm quality measures than men who did not drink alcohol.
It also found that the more drinks a man reported consuming per week, the more likely they were to have lower sperm counts. Men with a typical weekly intake above 40 units (about 32 standard drinks per week) had a 33 per cent reduction in sperm concentration compared to men who drank one to five units of alcohol per week (one to three standard drinks per week).
Another review of 15 studies concluded daily drinking is associated with reduced semen volume and morphology (the percentage of sperm that look normal under a microscope).
How does alcohol affect female fertility?
Health authorities have been increasing their warnings about alcohol to women wanting to conceive because of research showing it can be harmful to fertility and the health of a pregnancy and baby.
Studies show alcohol can affect hormones and ovulation, making it harder to time sex for conception, and that even light drinking can increase the time it takes to get pregnant.
Heavy drinking (consuming seven or more drinks a week or more than three drinks on one occasion) can cause many health problems and is linked to heavy or irregular periods and infertility.
In 2020, Australia’s drinking guidelines said the safest option for women trying to conceive is to drink no alcohol at all. This is because drinking alcohol at any stage of a pregnancy, including the time somebody does not know they are pregnant, can harm the baby.
Alcohol crosses the placenta and enters a baby’s bloodstream, so it can affect their health in a number of ways. The severity of harm depends on how much the woman drinks, the pattern of drinking and the stage of pregnancy when it occurs.
The risk of harm to the baby is highest when a woman drinks high levels of alcohol frequently (seven or more drinks a week) or binge drinks (six or more drinks on one occasion).
Heavy drinking and binge drinking can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and a range of other outcomes such as premature birth and low birth weight, which can lead to disability and developmental problems for a child. It can also cause foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a diagnosis that includes a range of permanent problems for a child who was exposed to alcohol in the womb.
Not all babies exposed to alcohol develop problems. The risk of harm is likely to be lower if a pregnant woman has consumed small amounts of alcohol before they knew they were pregnant and during pregnancy. But experts cannot say how much alcohol triggers harm for a baby, so they recommend no alcohol at all.
Tips for reducing and avoiding alcohol
If you’re in the habit of drinking alcohol to relax, socialise or celebrate, here are some ideas for reducing your intake or avoiding it altogether while you try for a baby. If you have a partner or a friend who can join you, it might be easier to do it together. And remember, it doesn’t have to be forever!
Try a non-alcoholic beer, wine or spirit to give you a similar taste without the booze. There’s an increasing range available in alcohol stores and supermarkets.
Remove alcohol from your house and replace it with attractive non-alcoholic drinks that you like. Try Kombucha, adding fruit to soda water in a jug, or pre-made lightly flavoured soda waters. Low sugar options are always best for your health.
If you’re out at a bar or restaurant, try a mocktail like a Virgin Mojito or Virgin Bloody Mary.
Identify the feelings that trigger you to drink. If you drink alcohol when you’re stressed, for example, try other ways to de-stress such as going for a walk or calling a friend for a chat.
Become the nominated driver when going out with friends who want to drink.
Go to a sober dance party or event to remind yourself that you can party vice-free.
Join a movement such as FebFast, Dry July or Ocsober and check out apps that can help you reduce your alcohol consumption.
Add up the amount you would usually spend on alcohol in a month and use it to buy yourself something else enjoyable.
If you feel dependent on alcohol, talk to your GP about getting additional help.