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.
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).
Categories: Health and wellbeing