What is the issue with drinking alcohol during pregnancy?
Alcohol crosses the placenta and affects the development of the unborn baby, in particular the baby’s brain.
The risks of drinking in pregnancy include higher rates of miscarriage, small babies, birth defects, premature birth, stillbirth and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). FASD covers a range of intellectual and developmental disabilities, behavioural problems and learning difficulties. In the most severe form, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, affected children have characteristic facial abnormalities, poor growth and evidence of underlying brain damage.
But I’ve heard that one or two drinks occasionally is fine during pregnancy…
We know that heavy drinking poses the greatest risk to baby. However, that doesn’t mean that lighter drinking is safe. It’s actually impossible to say if any amount of alcohol is safe for the baby. There is no proven threshold where we can say “this number of drinks is fine but any more is dangerous.”
I often see women who drank some alcohol before realising they were pregnant. I can generally reassure these women that the risk of damage to the baby is low. However, low risk is not the same as no risk.
The biggest study of light drinking in pregnancy was released in the UK in 2017. Some newspapers reported the research in a way that implied light drinking was safe. In actual fact, the authors concluded that more research was needed. Major health organisations continued to recommend no alcohol at all, even after this study was published.
Also, people are notoriously bad at estimating their alcohol intake. There is often a significant difference between a standard drink and the amount in a single glass. There is also no strict definition of “occasional” drinking. It is very easy to drink more than you realise.
What do I recommend to patients in regards to alcohol?
The safest option is not to drink any alcohol while you are pregnant or trying to conceive.
If you are pregnant and struggling with your alcohol intake please talk to your doctor. There is a lot of support available.