This article appears in Healthy Living Winter 2018.
Is a glass of wine OK if you’re pregnant? While experts agree that heavy drinking or binge drinking are bad for the baby, what
about light drinking?
People often look for and take the advice they want to hear, but there’s a lot of conflicting advice floating around the internet.
That has led to a surprising number of pregnant women imbibing alcohol.
In a 2015 report, one in 10 pregnant women reported drinking within the last 30 days and 3 percent of those women said they binge
drank, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The medical risks associated with drinking while pregnant include fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which is “a range of physical,
behavioral and developmental disabilities,” said Dr. Clara Ward, a maternal-fetal specialist with McGovern Medical School at
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.
“Alcohol consumption has also been associated with miscarriage, poor fetal growth and pre-term birth. Thus, there is no known
safe amount, type or period during which consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is safe,” Ward said.
‘My mom drank and I’m fine’
Surveys show that as many as 20 percent of women admit to alcohol use during pregnancy, Ward said.
“Some studies have publicized results that didn’t show adverse effects with moderate amounts of alcohol, which romanticizes the legends of the ‘Mad Men’ era where women sipped martinis and smoked their whole pregnancy. This reinforces ideas of someone who ‘drank their whole pregnancy’ and had a baby that ‘turned out fine,’” Ward said.
While heavy drinking is associated with more problems for baby than social drinking, “studies have also shown that babies exposed even to minimal amounts of alcohol in utero are more prone to behavioral problems, learning disabilities and mental health conditions,” Ward said.
“Since there is no known safe amount — and a lot of potential complications that are entirely preventable — the recommendation is to avoid all alcohol during pregnancy,” Ward advised.
Clear warnings and new research
Alcoholic beverages are clearly labeled with warnings from the Surgeon General that pregnant women should not consume alcohol. Additionally, organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists advise women who are or may become pregnant not to drink alcohol.
New research from the Binghamton University, State University of New York, finds that any amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause extreme, lasting effects on a child. Even a small to moderate amount of alcohol exposure can cause “significant amounts of anxiety in offspring, lasting through adolescence and into adulthood,” said Dr. Marvin Diaz, assistant professor of psychology at Binghamton.
The study examined pregnant rats after exposing them to alcohol vapors one time for a six-hour period. The results reportedly found that the rats’ offspring, especially males, showed signs of anxiety disorders after reaching adolescence.
“There’s been a lot of media coverage on whether there’s a safe amount of alcohol to drink. This study shows that there isn’t,” Diaz said.
Alcohol use during pregnancy wasn’t systematically examined until the 1960s and ’70s, when it was defined as a public health problem and the term “fetal alcohol syndrome” was coined.
“In the past 10 years even European countries, which have historically been regarded as progressive on the issue, have increased mandatory warnings against alcohol use in pregnancy,” Ward said.
A common question
Women often ask if there is a “safe” level of alcohol during pregnancy, especially among those who consumed alcohol before they discovered they were pregnant, Ward said.
“It is very unlikely that this has been harmful to baby and they should feel overall reassured. The focus now should be on being as healthy as possible — and avoiding alcohol — for the remainder of the pregnancy,” Ward said. “To be on the safe side, you should avoid alcohol if you are trying to conceive or not using contraception. If you find that you are having difficulty stopping your alcohol consumption, you should seek help from your doctor, Alcoholics Anonymous or a hotline.”
The bottom line
Every pregnancy is different.
“Not everyone who drinks while pregnant will have a child with noticeable differences. What may be safe for one baby may be devastating for another due to genetic, nutritional or environmental variables that are not yet defined,” Ward said. “Also, some differences may take longer to manifest or be subtle learning, behavior and achievement deficiencies. Since these problems are preventable, and alcohol consumption confers no health benefit, why take the risk?”