Drinking while pregnant – not worth the risk

It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to drinking while pregnant.

For years, women have been told to steer well clear of alcohol when they’re pregnant, because it’s bad for their unborn babies. Now, it seems there’s reason to pour a glass of bubbly to celebrate, with news international researchers are saying it’s okay to drink alcohol when you’re expecting – as long you don’t overdo it. But before anyone goes popping the Champagne corks, medical experts are warning that it’s still safest to abstain during pregnancy.

“The advice to avoid alcohol during pregnancy, when you are planning to become pregnant and when breastfeeding, remains the best and wisest option for women to follow,” says Christine Rogan of Alcohol Healthwatch. “Why would you think exposing a developing foetus to a proven neurotoxin would be okay?”

The research

Christine’s response comes after Danish researchers indicated that low to moderate drinking early on in pregnancy appears to have had no signifi cant effect on the brain development of kids aged five. Neither does occasional binge drinking, according to their findings. The research, published in the journal BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, looked at the effects of alcohol on IQ, attention span, planning and organisation skills, and aspects of self-control in five-year-olds whose mothers drank during their pregnancy.

The researchers asked more than 1600 mums-to-be about their drinking habits. Women who knocked back one to four drinks a week were classified as low level drinkers, those who had five to eight in a week were considered moderate, while downing nine or more drinks a week was considered to be high-level consumption. When the women’s children turned five, their IQ, attention span and thinking skills were tested. The study found a lower attention span in the children whose mothers drank more than nine drinks a week, but low to moderate drinking did not affect the way youngsters’ brains worked. Neither did occasional binge drinking – considered to be five or more drinks in one session alone.

Caution required

Doctors across the world have been quick to point out that these study results don’t mean it’s okay to get stuck into the vino when you’re pregnant or trying to have a baby. “It’s not worth the risk,” says a spokesperson for the Centre for Disease Control in the US, adding that drinking alcohol in pregnancy can be associated with miscarriage, stillbirth and a range of other permanent health problems in babies. Another US expert cautions that the findings can easily send out the wrong message, with some women using it as an excuse to drink.

Professor Jennie Connor, the head of the department of preventive and social medicine at the University of Otago, says “There is a risk that this information could lead women to believe that it is reasonable to drink during pregnancy as long as it is not ‘too much’. This research does not establish a safe level of drinking.”

**Weighing the risks

**Other medical experts here have also expressed their concern. Christine says there is no such thing as a safe limit for a fully mature adult and the risk to adolescent brain development is recognised, “so why would you expose a baby to it?” Associate professor Kathryn Kitson of the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health at Massey University, says a safe limit is essentially no alcohol. “Alcohol alters foetal development and affects the mechanisms that regulate the baby’s genes at critical stages of development.”

In other words, alcohol can affect the development of a baby’s brain. It can cause a condition called foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which can lead to facial abnormalities, slow growth and speech, difficulty paying attention, and learning and behavioural problems. According to some researchers, FASD is the leading cause of mental retardation in children in the Western world.

**The wider issue

**Meanwhile, earlier this year, a group of experts told a conference in Wellington that as many as 3000 babies a year could be born in New Zealand with developmental problems due to exposure to alcohol in the womb. Neuropsychologist Dr Valerie McGinn says it’s a problem that often goes undiagnosed and there is very little specialist medical care available for sufferers. As a result, a huge number of children with behavioural problems and learning difficulties are labelled as naughty and slow, when in fact they have brain damage.

The trauma can’t be undone, but sufferers can be helped if they are diagnosed. Strategies to help them learn include being given clear instructions, one thing to do at a time and being well-supervised. Because kids with FASD have poorly regulated emotions they can overreact to situations and behave badly because the expectations on them are too high. This can result in them getting into trouble at school and with the police. This is something they can be helped with too, but again the best thing to do to avoid any possible risk of this is to give up alcohol during pregnancy.

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