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Even Light Drinking During Pregnancy Raises Concerns

Katlyn Joy |16, March 2014


If you are pregnant, you might want to think twice before you pick up that glass of wine. A new study out of the United Kingdom points to light drinking as a risk factor in preterm births and smaller sized babies. This is the latest in a seeming volley of conflicting reports on the effects of light drinking by expectant mothers.

Leeds researchers studied 1,200 local pregnant women aged 18 to 25 who were deemed to be low risk pregnancies. The women answered questionnaires on topics such as food frequency, and if they had alcohol intake, how much and often they drank, and what they specifically drank. The women were enrolled in the Caffeine and Reproductive Health (CARE) study. The study covered each trimester of pregnancy as well as the month preceding conception.

Babies born to women in the study who were light drinkers gave birth prematurely at a rate of 4.3%, 4.4% had smaller than expected babies and were underweight in 13% of the births. After correcting for other factors, researchers found that women who drank more than 2 units of alcohol a week were twice as likely to have a premature birth.

In the UK, women are advised that they should avoid drinking, but if they partake they should limit their drinking to one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week. A medium glass of wine or pint of beer represents a unit of alcohol.

Researchers found that even when women kept to the UK guidelines, they were at increased risk of having a preterm birth. Additionally, women who drank before conceiving had a definite increase in the risk of restricted fetal growth.

Different Standards

While the UK has much more lax standards on prenatal drinking, the United States takes a much harsher stance, stating that there is no safe limit of drinking in pregnancy and all women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should abstain from drinking.

Canada has similar standards to the US, recommending screening for all expectant mothers for alcohol consumption

Disturbing Trends the Study Discovered

Women participating in the Leeds study drank a whooping 11 units of alcohol a week in the first trimester. This is particularly disturbing as this is when the greatest rate of fetal development occurs and the greatest risk of birth defects is. The period just prior to conceiving wasn't much better, with women drinking an average of 10 or more units a week. The rate of drinking 10 units weekly pre-conception? Forty percent.

Women tapered off on drinking further into the pregnancy, perhaps when they were more obviously pregnant, drinking only four units a week in the second trimester, and under two units in the final trimester.

More than half of the women reported drinking more than two units of alcohol each week in their first trimester. Those drinking over the recommended 2 units a week per UK standards, were more likely to be older, educated, white women living in more affluent areas.

Conflicting Studies about Drinking Alcohol during Pregnancy

In 2010 a study out of University College London found no evidence of negative results in children's development up to age five from light drinking by their mother's during pregnancy. And in 2012 US researchers concerned about the devastating effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome came to the conclusion that there is no safe limit in drinking alcohol when expecting a baby.

However, in Denmark another study said that drinking in early pregnancy had no ill effects on children. In 2013 UK researchers advised that moderate alcohol consumption in pregnancy was safe, setting off a firestorm of controversy in health circles around the globe.

According to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, alcohol is the leading preventable cause of birth defects, developmental and learning disabilities with about 40,000 babies born each year affected by alcohol resulting in Fetal Alcohol Effect or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders or FASD.

The biggest question is in light of the risks of grave consequences associated with drinking, whether there are some conflicting positive studies or not is: why would any woman risk it? Is it not worth abstaining for the couple months leading up to pregnancy and the months of carrying a child? All told, it's only about a year of your life to ensure the best possible start for your baby, with no worries or questions or later guilt.

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