Studies Show Moderate Drinking During Pregnancy is not Harmful

If you’re pregnant and trying to decide if it’s OK to drink a little glass of Chianti with dinner on that special night out with your husband and friends, chances are the information you get from the web, friends and doctors will be divided, confusing and not very helpful. Some will tell you in no uncertain terms that any alcohol consumed during pregnancy will be harmful to children while others are more sanguine and will tell you that moderate drinking does not pose any risk to the developing fetus. So what is an expectant mother to do?

The risks of heavy drinking during pregnancy are well known. Scientists have known for decades that fetal alcohol syndrome, which involves growth retardation, intellectual disability and other abnormalities, can occur in children born to mothers who consumed large amounts of alcohol over a short period – usually defined as 50 grams of alcohol per day. From this recognized fact, expectant mothers supported by some health care professionals have leaped to the conclusion that those who consume any alcohol during pregnancy are putting their children at risk of cognitive and behavioral problems.

While heavy drinking during pregnancy has been shown to be harmful, is the same true for light or moderate drinking? Based on recent scientific studies, it would appear that this is not the case. Mothers can take comfort from some recent empirical studies that found no evidence of harm from having a couple of glasses of wine a week - or other alcoholic beverage - during pregnancy. Conversely, I know of no scientific study that concludes or even implies that responsible drinking during pregnancy will cause problems for children.

Reassurance that light to moderate drinking will not cause social-emotional or cognitive problems for unborn children is provided by a June 2010 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. In this study, researchers in the United Kingdom utilized data from a large study tracking the long-term health of children (11,513 observations) born in the U. K. in the two year period 2000 - 2002. Mothers of these children were interviewed and grouped according to mothers’ reported alcohol consumption during pregnancy: never drink; not during pregnancy; light; moderate; or heavy/binge.

When children reached age 3, mothers were queried regarding their children’s behavior. At age 5, the children took an intellectual and developmental assessment administered at their homes. The conclusion of the research was that children born to mothers who drank up to 1-2 drinks per week or per occasion were not at any increased risk of clinically relevant behavioral difficulties or cognitive deficits compared with equivalent children of mothers who did not drink during pregnancy. Curiously, children whose mothers drank 1 to 2 drinks a week during pregnancy were 30 percent less likely to exhibit behavioral problems than children of mothers that didn’t drink during pregnancy.

This study followed on the heels of an earlier study that examined whether there was any association between mothers’ light drinking during pregnancy and risk of behavioral problems and cognitive deficits in their children at age 3. Using the same methodology and data as the above-referenced study, the research concluded that children of mothers who drank up to 1-2 drinks a week were not at risk of behavioral problems or cognitive deficits at age 3.

These conclusions are consistent with the results of yet another study utilizing data from Australia published in 2010 in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. This study examined the relationship of alcoholic consumption during pregnancy and behavioral development from childhood to adolescence. The study examined 2,900 pregnancies in Western Australia over the 1989 – 1991 period. The women in the study provided data on weekly alcohol intake and were grouped accordingly.

Follow-up analyses of the children were conducted at ages 2, 5, 8, 10 and 14. The results of the study indicated that light drinking (up to one standard drink per week) and moderate drinking (7-10 standard drinks per week) during pregnancy were not associated with any adverse developmental effects and may even be associated with more favorable outcomes when compared to the abstinent (no drinks during pregnancy) group.

Red wine glass with Siberian Iris in backgroundThe bottom line from these and other studies is that light to moderate drinking by women during pregnancy does not put their offspring at any increased risk of behavioral problems or cognitive deficits compared to children of mothers who do not drink during pregnancy. These studies were carefully conducted and the results peer-reviewed so this really ought to be the final word on the subject, especially in light of the fact that there have been no empirical studies that suggest otherwise.

So, what should an expectant mother do? Ultimately, it’s up to each mother to decide what to do. While they can seek advice from their doctor and other trusted advisors if it's OK to have that occasional glass of Chianti with dinner, ultimately the decision is theirs to make. Regardless of what science has to say on this issue, some women will opt to play it safe and give up all alcohol during pregnancy and probably not regret their decision one bit.

However, other expectant mothers can take comfort in the fact that the best unbiased research to date indicates that a glass of wine a day will not cause their children to suffer any loss of IQ points or other adverse developmental effects. In addition, an occasional glass of wine may have other, harder-to-quantify benefits such as reducing the level of stress or anxiety during what can be a stressful period.

The bottom line is, whether you are pregnant or not, drink responsibly!


©Richard Marcis
May 24, 2012


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