Alcohol in Pregnancy

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My own experience

When I became pregnant, the decision to stop drinking alcohol was automatic. I was apprehensive during my pregnancy, so I stopped drinking entirely until the last trimester when I enjoyed the very occasional glass of red wine. At a friend’s wedding, I sipped a glass of wine, followed by only one more over the course of the day. Some of the other guests offered me alcoholic drinks regardless of my protests and rather conspicuous baby belly. This experience suggests there is confusion over whether pregnant women should drink alcohol and what amount is safe. I can accept that there are varying opinions among us on what is acceptable, but what I find worrisome is that the professionals can’t seem to agree either. Since my babies were born, some findings have reassured me that it was OK to have had the occasional drink and others have left me feeling guilty and confused as they advised to avoid alcohol entirely.

What the health departments say

Health departments and medical officers believe we should abstain from alcohol entirely for the duration of the pregnancy. The Irish Department of Health has made its position clear. ‘Given the harmful drinking patterns in Ireland and the propensity to binge drink, there is substantial risk of neurological damage to the foetus resulting in Foetal Abnormality Spectrum Disorders. Therefore, it is in the child’s best interest for a pregnant woman not to drink alcohol during pregnancy’. As well as a range of F.A.S.D, evidence has shown that the consumption of more than three alcoholic drinks per day increases the risk of miscarriage. There is also a strong correlation between heavy drinking and premature births. The number of pre-term births is highest among women who consume high amounts of alcohol. The Chief Medical Officer in the UK has also stated that pregnant women should avoid alcohol completely and the American Academy of Paediatrics reiterates this message.

The situation here and abroad

In spite of this universal standard, some Irish women continue to drink during pregnancy, and some at high levels. A study published in the BMC pregnancy and childbirth Journal reported that 10% of the 61,241 women surveyed at Coombe Women’s Hospital drank between 6-20 units of alcohol per week which is more than American and European Counterparts. Different studies report slightly different findings, but overall it is evident that Irish women are more likely to drink alcohol during pregnancy. 12% of women in the U.S. admit to drinking during pregnancy, 53% of French women, 55% of British women and in Ireland 66% of women admit drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

However, the results of a small study – ‘Alcohol consumption in pregnancy’ published in the Irish Journal of medical science  in 2013, suggests that our habits may be changing for the better. The survey of 240 women in the greater Dublin area, shows a decline in the amount of alcohol consumed by pregnant Irish women when compared to previous research. 62 % of those surveyed said they did not drink at all. This is in stark contrast to earlier research of 120,000 women carried out at Coombe Women’s Hospital during 1987-2005, which showed that only 28% of women abstained.

Recent research

Research findings may bring reassurance to some, but shifting goalposts may lead to confusion and misinterpretation of the guidelines. More recently there are medical professionals who say that small amounts of alcohol are unlikely to have any negative effect on the baby. In 2008, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence said women who choose to drink ‘should be advised to drink no more than one or two units once or twice a week. Although there is uncertainty regarding a safe level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy, at this low level there is no evidence of harm to the unborn baby’. To add further complication, it has been acknowledged that many incidences of babies born with F.A.S.D may go undetected, and therefore the true impact of alcohol consumption during pregnancy is unknown.

A longer term Danish study in 2012 found that women who reported moderate alcohol consumption (one drink per day) did not have a negative impact on ‘executive’ functioning in 5-year-old children (executive functioning refers to cognitive ability to plan, organize, remember details and manage time).

New figures and research will continue to come forward with slightly different results and bring controversy to this ongoing debate. Whether we may deem it good or bad news, we can’t ignore the underlying message from national health departments which remains constant – drinking alcohol at high levels poses huge risks to our unborn babies and if we do choose to drink, it is safest to keep it to a limit of no more than one or two units, once or twice a week.

 

(Published in Mums and Tots Magazine, Spring issue 2014).

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Categories: Health and wellbeing

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17 replies

  1. I admit that I had a drink on NYE when I was pregnant with DS. I felt guilty about it the whole time and it just gave me heartburn. I was a very regular drinker back then and nine months of complete sobriety was almost painful. I would cheat and have sips of hubbys beer now and then but nothing substantial. With the girls I was so careful about everything I ate or drank during the pregnancy (since I worked so hard for them and went through so much) plus by then I had only been a social drinker for years so I didn’t even want to drink anyways (and I still barely do). In any case, all of my kids are fine, even above average in every way. Oh, I did have the occasional drink while nursing though. I would drink (usually a light beer) while he was actually nursing because I figured that would give it the most time to get in and out of my system before he nursed again LOL

  2. As far as my girls go, I believe they abstained completely during pregnancy. But the foster children whom I cared for were all victims of FAS. So my general feeling is that abstain now or your children will pay. Thanks for the great article. Nicely written.

    • You’re absolutely right. I think women should abstain completely while pregnant. Obviously I wouldn’t say that directlty to them . It’s just not worth risking your baby’s health. It’s a no-brainer. I did have the odd one, and I wish I hadn’t but it’s not socially unacceptable for a pregnant woman to drink alcohol in Ireland. People will continue to offer you drinks.

  3. My pregnancy honestly feels like a blur now, even though my twins are only ten months old! I think I may have had a glass of wine at some point, at some family occasion, but other than that I didn’t drink at all. I couldn’t really enjoy drinking anyway because I’m too much of a worry wart. Now I’m breastfeeding, and I do drink beer occasionally…usually split one with my husband (which he’s never that happy about, but prefers it to drinking alone).

    • I’ll never forget my pregnancy. I can’t forget feeling so massive! If I was to have another baby, I would definitely abstain from alcohol entirely and throughout the entire pregnancy.You are so great to get this far with breast feeding. That’s quite the achievement. I got as far as three months. It broke my heart to stop, but I was absolutely exhausted. They are healthy kids, so It’s nice to know they benefitted and it was worth the effort. Well done you. :o)

  4. I am on the other side (sorry) I had the odd glass of wine through both my pregnancies. I found pregnancy hard work, certainly with the twins and was advised by my medical team that a small glass of wine could act as a mild stress reliever. I think each to their own, clearly I don’t condone heavy drinking at all, but the odd small glass of wine here and there was ok in my book.

    • Hi Jane. Thanks for your input. I think ultimately the odd glass is grand too, and I did have the odd one towards the end. I just think that every time some new research comes out, the media jump on it and try to ‘make news’ and possibly confuse us. I reckon if you’re worried about alcohol consumption, it’s best to avoid it.

  5. This is so taboo. In the past, it was okay for a woman to have the occasional glass or mind. Obviously consistent drinking is never okay. I’ve seen a baby with the affects of FAS, not a pretty picture. I think its fair to say, even when not pregnant, everything in moderation and perhaps not at all when expecting. However each mother makes their own choice, and if they choose, hopefully their little one bear the consequence

Penny for your thoughts

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