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Alcohol and Pregnancy: Studies show that drinking may not be so bad

Lately, the happy medium, everything-in-moderation stance toward drinking in pregnancy seems to be getting a lot of support. A study released this March in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, in which researchers tracked kids from babyhood to adolescence, found no negative effects as long as mom had less than one drink per day.

Compare that to two studies released last year showing certain perks for babies of light drinkers. One, an epidemiology study of 11,500 children published last June, found that those born to moms who were light drinkers (consuming 1-2 drinks per week or per occasion) had higher mean cognitive test scores. Another study of 2,300 children assessed every two to three years between ages two and 14 found that those born to light or moderate drinkers (moms who had two to six drinks per week, or one per day) early in pregnancy tended to have kids who were better emotionally adjusted.

So does this mean that alcohol could be good for a fetus? Not likely – although maybe if mom takes a swig of wine and feels more relaxed, that’s good for baby. Or maybe moms who drink socially are more connected to a community – which in turn, is good for their health. It could also be that moms with a moderate stance toward life are on average more balanced and psychologically healthy than those who think in black and white (and would be more likely to binge or abstain). In other words, it’s not the alcohol that boosts smarts or good behavior, it’s the benefit of coming from a flexible, centrist mom. No one knows for sure which explanation, if any, is correct.

Even with studies, though, it’s hard to make blanket statements about safe drinking in pregnancy because one of the reasons that the drinking-during-pregnancy question is tricky is that no two fetuses are the same. For example, last month, researchers from Northwestern University found that babies with a certain version of a thyroid gene are more susceptible to damage from alcohol. The study looked at rat mother-baby pairs and tracked what happened when mom was fed the human equivalent of two to three glasses of wine a day. They found that if the fetus had inherited a form of the gene Dio3 (which codes for an enzyme that controls thyroid hormone), the babies showed significant deficits in social behavior and memory. The others were unaffected, even though their moms drank the same amount.

None of us knows (at least yet) which of our growing babies is more vulnerable to alcohol, which is why the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that “no amount of alcohol consumption can be considered safe during pregnancy.” But the study helps explain why some moms have their fair share of booze and baby appears just fine, while others are inclined to more cognitive troubles or even fetal alcohol syndrome.

Most moms hedge their bets and switch to orange juice and sparkling water. When I was pregnant, starting when my son was just a blob of dividing cells through my first trimester, I didn’t drink (I tried to make up for it with ice-cream cookie sandwiches). By my last trimester, I made my husband order wine with dinner instead of his usual whiskey and I’d sip, somewhat guilt-free.

In my mind, there’s something falsely confident about the zero-tolerance drinking policy. It assumes that as pregnant women, we’re completely in control of the environment inside the womb. Sure, alcohol is an easy one to tick off the list – but when you consider your overall health, the foods you eat, the emotions and hormones that flood your growing baby’s home, and the unique makeup of your particular baby, to me the focus on abstinence is a little out of proportion.

Not to mention that the ideal of being the perfect baby vessel is pretty well unreachable – no matter what we do, our lives and the world around creep into what we think of as a baby bubble. Chemicals from pesticides and plastics show up in almost all the umbilical cords of brand new babies. Exhaust fumes from living near a highway, stress from being laid off from your job or fighting with your partner. Is whether or not you have sips of wine or beer with dinner really making a difference in the complex milieu of the womb?

I’m not arguing that expecting moms should hit happy hour instead of a prenatal yoga class (remember, I couldn’t even order my own glass of Cabernet). The reality is that even when studies show no observable effects on baby when mom drinks, we don’t really know exactly what’s happening on a more subtle biological level.

I just think that the tsk-tsking of moms who don’t banish alcohol completely is a little silly when you think about the bigger picture. Maybe we should focus on what we’re doing for ourselves and our babies instead of what we’re eliminating and swearing off. Within reason, could it be that for a pregnant mom, keeping an eye on the positives – eating delicious, real-food meals, spending time outside and staying active, being around family – is more important than sweating her endless list of no-nos?

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