Drinking During Pregnancy? An MD Mom Weighs In

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drinking during pregnancy can harm your baby: signRandi Hutter Epstein is the mom of 4 kids. She’s also an MD and the author of “Get Me Out!”  one of the coolest books about childbirth we’ve ever seen. So Randi’s no stranger to talking to the press about pregnancy. But she recently found herself a pundit for an unlikely angle: drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

It all started when she was interviewed for The New York Post’s piece on the recent trend of pregnant women’s moderate drinking habits. Epstein admitted to light drinking, and suddenly, she was a spokesperson. She appeared on the TV news defending her position (and turned down a spot on the Wendy Williams show leading a team of pregnant drinkers against the inevitable audience onslaught). As a woman with a Yale medical degree and a deep knowledge of pregnancy habits throughout history, Epstein has a lot of information to draw on. So what does this scholar, doctor, and mom have to say about why she decided to drink while she was pregnant?

Like many people with relaxed attitudes about light drinking during pregnancy, Epstein had her first baby abroad. And the explanation her British OB used when she asked about alcohol is still the reason Epstein believes pregnant women should not be given a zero tolerance mandate for alcohol during pregnancy.

When I was pregnant with my first son in London 17 years ago, my doctor said I could continue to drink wine because, as he put it, “no woman with a baby born with fetal alcohol syndrome has ever said, ‘damn, I shouldn’t have had that glass of wine last weekend.” The babies with problems were born to women who were putting away liters of vodka every day.” (My American doctors were appalled when they heard about the British words of wisdom.)

And yet, when I talked about this study on a Canadian radio station, I got hate email from two mothers raising children with fetal alcohol syndrome. I repeat. I am not advocating drunkenness during pregnancy or even a glass of wine every day.

Which brings me to the most important point. If we really want to prevent babies being born damaged by alcohol-and these children are damaged for life-we have to come up with a better public health strategy.

Epstein suggests that the current mandate is doing nothing but discouraging women who are responsible enough to read labels and follow recommendations—people who are unlikely to be abusing alcohol in the first place. Meanwhile, the women who are really in danger of harming their children are those who drink heavily and/or regularly: alcoholics. And these women tend to be too addicted to alcohol or too out of it to heed the recommendations anyway. The result, says Epstein, is that babies are still being born with Fetal Alcohol Disorders. The strategy isn’t working.

“The problem with labels is that they convince the moderate drinkers to quit but have no impact on women with drinking problems. Let’s be real. What pregnant alcoholic is going to pick up a quart of vodka, read the fine print, and then say, ‘oh, yeah, I’ll have sparkling water instead.'”

In fact, Dr. Epstein says, the labeling and recommendation campaign has done absolutely nothing to reduce the number of children born with FASD. In fact, the rates have actually increased. The solution, according to Epstein, is what should have been done when Fetal Alcohol Syndrome was diagnosed in the first place: A targeted program focusing on getting help for pregnant alcoholics—the group KNOWN to be at risk for FASD—rather than focusing on women who had no proven or even suggested risk.

Epstein doesn’t advocate drinking every day during pregnancy, or having more than a small amount of alcohol at a time. But she does make a compelling case for the idea that any negative feedback for the occasional glass of wine is utterly misguided.

photo: Neal Jennings/flickr

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