Whether it's a big night out partying, a few cocktails with the girls or a quiet Friday night at home with a glass of wine to celebrate the end of the working week, most of us enjoy a tipple of some sort every now and then. And why not? After all, research has shown that all alcohol can help to reduce the risk of coronary-related conditions such as heart disease, not just red wine like is commonly thought. But what about during pregnancy? Is it medically acceptable to continue to enjoy the odd glass? Or how about socially acceptable? Well the truth is, as far as being medically acceptable goes, research tends to remain inconclusive. And as for being socially acceptable? Well, along with the breastfeeding/formula feeding debate, that's one of the most controversial topics surrounding pregnancy and parenting.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
One thing thing that we do know for sure is that consistent binge-drinking and regular alcohol misuse can be hugely detrimental to health, whether pregnant or not. If you've ever woken up with a splitting headache, wondering how you managed to get home the night before, you'll surely agree there's no argument there. However, it is is even more of an issue during pregnancy as there's not only yourself to think about, but your baby too.
Alcohol is one of the few substances that can easily pass through the placenta. Usually, the placenta is a clever little thing and is designed to prevent infections from crossing over the barrier and reaching the fetus. However, even with thousands of years of alcohol consumption, the placenta hasn't evolved to the extent that it can prevent the harmful effects.
Babies born to mothers who abuse alcohol are found to be at increased risk of physical, mental and growth difficulties categorized as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Symptoms of this condition are varied and plentiful, but the most common include stunted growth, poor coordination and social and behavioral problems. Physical symptoms are also possible, including small and thin facial features and the presence of large epicanthal folds on the eyes similar to those with Downs Syndrome. Unfortunately, few babies born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome will overcome the condition, with many experiencing lifelong abnormal or reduced brain function.
Birth Risks & Lasting Effects: Is Alcohol To Blame?
So while we know that alcohol misuse can have devastating effects, what about moderate, sensible drinking? As alcohol has proven health benefits, can it also be beneficial during pregnancy? The Department of Health advises pregnant women to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy as research into the subject matter hasn't concluded a definite "safe" amount. But what exactly does scientific research say about the effects of prenatal alcohol consumption? Let's take a look, you may well find yourself quite shocked by the findings.
Firstly, let's look at some of the less shocking research conclusions; those findings which we'd expect science to show us. As we've discussed, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can affect developmental growth. A 1991 study that looked at the relationship between alcohol consumption during pregnancy and infant birth weight confirmed this, reporting a definite link between moderate alcohol use and low birth rates. The study even found a steady gradient demonstrating a negative correlation between number of drinks consumed and healthy birth weights so the findings are pretty conclusive. Low weight babies are at increased risk of having underdeveloped lungs and subsequent breathing problems.
A further study conducted in France in 2010 found that alcohol use throughout pregnancy was associated with a significant increase of childhood Leukemia. Leukemia is one of the most common cancers among children and the exact causes are unknown, but research such as this study has found that maternal alcohol use could be a contributing risk factor. Worse still, a 2001 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at alcohol intake in relation to stillbirth. While the risk of this was reported as 1.37 in every 1000 births for women who consumed less than one alcoholic drink per week during pregnancy, the figure rocketed to 8.83 per 1000 births for women who consumed more than five per week.
Research of this kind is difficult to ignore and I can't imagine any woman would put their unborn child's health at risk simply for a quick buzz. But is that all research has to say on the matter? Actually, no. For almost every study that shows the detrimental effects of prenatal alcohol consumption, there is another demonstrating either no link or, surprisingly, benefits to enjoying the occasional glass.
A 2008 study carried out in London reported evidence supporting Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in that the findings indicated a direct link between heavy drinking throughout pregnancy and cognitive and behavioral problems in three year olds. However, the study found absolutely no link to these problems in children born to mothers who enjoyed a more sensible one or two alcoholic drinks per week. A Danish study in 2010 reported similar findings, as well as concluding that light drinking does not contribute to the risk of autism. This study actually found that women who had one binge-drinking session during pregnancy had a lower chance of delivering a child with autism, though the researchers themselves are the first to point out that this may be coincidental and much more research would be needed before a conclusion can be drawn.
Another study which has found benefits to light prenatal alcohol consumption is the 1993 Risk Factors for Antepartum and Intrapartum Stillbirth. In complete contrast to the 2001 study we looked at earlier, this study found that women who avoided alcohol completely during pregnancy were at a slightly increased risk of experiencing a stillbirth than women who drank sensibly. However, once again more research needs to be carried out before we can take this as conclusive evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is beneficial.
What Is The Right Choice?
There is absolutely no doubt that alcohol misuse is dangerous for both you and your baby and should be avoided at all times, especially during pregnancy. But as for light, sensible alcohol consumption, that is something that only you can decide. The official medical standpoint on this matter is that alcohol should be avoided due to a lack of evidence of the effects. However, these are only guidelines and although it may be seen as socially unacceptable for pregnant women to enjoy the odd glass of wine, it is not illegal. If you feel comfortable in doing so, that is your decision. If you would rather abstain, that's also your decision. Just be sure to take into account the research above to ensure you make an informed choice.