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New Study Shows Low to Moderate Drinking in Early Pregnancy May Be Safe

A new study has shown that drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol in early pregnancy is not linked to developmental problems in five-years-olds.

This research, published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (BJOG), comes from a Danish team who recruited 1,600 pregnant women early in pregnancy. They interviewed the women about their alcohol consumption throughout pregnancy. One-to-four drinks per week was considered low consumption and five-to-eight drinks per week was considered moderate consumption. Over nine drinks a week was considered a high level of consumption. Binge drinking was defined as having more than five drinks on one occasion.

Some women drank nothing. Others drank various amounts.

Five years later, researchers evaluated the children of these mothers. They looked at IQ, attention span and executive function (self-control, planning, etc). There were no differences in IQ tests between kids of moms who drank low or moderate amounts of alcohol–nor those who reported binge drinking–and those of kids of moms who drank nothing. The only kids with apparent developmental problems– lower attention span– was the group of kids whose mothers who drank over nine drinks a week during pregnancy.

So… as long as you have fewer than nine drinks a week, your kid should be fine? That’s a strikingly different message from the US medical recommendation that all pregnant women abstain from alcohol entirely.

The lead authors of the University of Copenhagen, said: “High prenatal exposure to alcohol has consistently been associated with adverse effects on neurodevelopment. Areas such as intelligence, attention and executive functions have been found to be particularly vulnerable. Our findings show that low to moderate drinking is not associated with adverse effects on the children aged five.”

Patrick O’Brien, a spokesman for RCOG, told the BBC that the research was very well designed. Unlike many other studies into pregnancy and alcohol, these researchers talked to women about their habits at the time (not years later) and they tracked kids for such a long time and looked at many areas of development.

Dr O’Brien also noted, “These findings suggest low to moderate drinking has no significant effect on children aged five. However, this does not mean that women can use this as an excuse to indulge in more than the recommended amount in the UK.” (In the UK, the RCOG says one to two drinks per week is considered okay after 12 weeks of pregnancy).

Studying alcohol in pregnancy is complicated. Earlier this year a study came out showing that late first trimester may be the most vulnerable time for fetal alcohol exposure. Commenting on that research, Dr. Christina Chambers of the University of California, San Diego, said, “Even if you find 10 women who drink a quart of vodka a day, maybe only five of those babies will have full-blown fetal alcohol syndrome, because there are other factors that influence the risk.”

Some of these factors include body fat levels, genes, diet, and other environmental exposures. It’s hard to do research on this topic as women have to “self-report” alcohol consumption so data is not always so accurate.

My sense, from writing about this topic for several years now, is that a glass here and there during pregnancy will do no harm, but since the stakes are so high and there are so many variables (some of which we don’t understand and can’t control), erring on the side of caution is logical. To me, caution does not mean 100% abstinence. I think in European countries where pregnant women are more likely to have a bit of wine with a meal, this common sense prevails.

In past debates on this topic, Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D. and author of the excellent, Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth, has made the valuable point that total abstinence policies for pregnant women make less sense than targeted campaigns to at-risk groups of alcoholic women who need real support to stop drinking during pregnancy.

“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.’” This study conforms that chronic and excessive drinking– the kind alcoholics engage in– is not good for the baby.

What do you think? If you were told a glass of wine here and there was okay, would that that change your attitude about drinking and pregnancy? Do you think it’s easier to just call it quits and leave it at that?

Ceridwen Morris (CCE) is a childbirth educator and co-author of the pregnancy and birth book From The Hips. Follow her pregnancy and birth blogging on Facebook.

photo: Cindy Farr-Weinfeld/Flickr

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