Is light drinking while pregnant OK?
I get asked this question a lot; so much so that I now go over it with every new mother I meet with. Everyone knows that heavy drinking is bad for the baby and should be avoided while you are pregnant. Also, almost everyone has heard or been told about “a study” that says that a glass or two every once in a while, is not bad and could even be good for the baby. When you ask them where they heard that they will hem and hah with no real answer. That is because they want it to be true.
Here is what I know:
The research is conclusive: Heavy consumption of alcohol in pregnancy carries a definite risk to the developing baby. The truth is, we just don’t have the same level of irrefutable information when talking about low-level alcohol consumption.
A recent Danish study examined the effects on 5-year-olds whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy. Here is how they categories drinking habits:
Low consumption: One to four drinks a week
Moderate consumption: Five to eight drinks a week
High consumption: Nine or more a week
Binge drinking: Five or more drinks during a single occasion
Researchers who did not know about the mother’s consumption of alcohol during pregnancy examined the children at 5-year-old. They performed tests on IQ, attention span, planning capabilities, organization, and self-control. The bottom line result was; they were not able to tell any difference between children whose mothers drank low to moderate amounts of alcohol and those who completely abstained while pregnant.
So, this would seem to suggest that low-level alcohol consumption is safe during pregnancy. But not so fast, there are other factors to consider.
- Even though the Danish study included 1,600 women, that is still a relatively small sample size.
- A 5-year-old child’s brain is still developing, and the full effect that alcohol may have had on them may not yet be miserable.
The authors of the study concluded that more large-scale studies are needed to investigate the effects of low and moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy – and that for now it’s best for pregnant women to avoid alcohol.
In November 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report that focused on recognizing, diagnosing, and treating Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). They also reiterated their recommendation that no amount of alcohol should be consumed during any trimester of pregnancy. This follows the advice the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and most health organizations focused on pregnancy.
Other countries are just now beginning to recommend completely refraining from alcohol during pregnancy. The UK Department of Health in January 2016 issued new guidelines that advise just that. The UK’s new guidelines no longer give a range of how much a woman could drink if she wanted to, and recommend that she not drink at all. They do say the risk of harm to the baby is likely low if a woman drinks a small amount during pregnancy.
As the science is 100% clear; I know drinking heavily during pregnancy is not safe for developing babies and should be avoided. I am less sure about the risks of low to moderate drinking, and until we have better information, it’s my recommendation that pregnant women completely refrain from consuming alcohol. I just do not think it is worth the risk.
With that being said, I don’t think it is OK to “Drink Shame” women for making a different choice. As I said the science is not clear on the risk, but women make decisions about risks and outcomes for them and their children’s health all the time. There are lots of guidelines regarding what women should not do during pregnancy. Some of them are:
- Don’t eat soft cheese
- Don’t eat sliced deli meat
- Don’t eat raw fish
- Don’t eat meat cooked too rare
- Don’t eat fish with high levels of mercury
- Don’t eat smoked seafood
- Don’t eat raw eggs
- Don’t eat or drink unpasteurized dairy products
- Don’t paint the nursery or any other rooms in your house
- Don’t overdo it on caffeine
- Don’t drink sugary drinks (including juice)
- Don’t take certain medications
- Don’t wear high heels
- Don’t go in the hot tub or sauna
- Don’t change the kitty litter
- Don’t breathe second hand smoke
- Don’t sit or stand too long
And I am sure there are more…
My point is, there is a lot of information for a woman who finds herself pregnant to absorb. There are a lot of “facts” being floated out there with contradicting and confusing data behind them. Most women are just trying to do the right thing for them and their baby and it is not for us to judge their decisions.
As a health care provider, my job is to educate women about what we know regarding alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Women need to be allowed to make their own decisions based on the amount of risk they are willing to accept. Many will say, “If there is any risk, I will follow the guidelines and not drink at all.” Others may examine the risks and choose to have an occasional drink (I don’t agree but it is their choice).
Again, just to reiterate, my position just in case I have not been 100% clear; is that WOMEN SHOULD NOT DRINK ALCOHOL AT ALL during pregnancy. There is no amount that has been shown as “safe”. I advise all my clients to err on the side of safety on this issue.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
It turns out that there’s not much research on just how little a pregnant woman could drink without harming her unborn baby, according to a paper published in the journal BMJ Open on Monday.