Limiting alcohol when pregnant is a wise idea, but how strict do you need to be? Dietitian Catherine Saxelby examines the issue.
Alcohol and pregnancy is a dangerous combination – mainly, because no one is certain what constitutes a ‘safe’ level of intake. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) says it’s best to avoid drinking entirely. But do you need to be so strict?
There’s no doubt that heavy drinking may negatively affect an unborn baby’s brain and physical development. Excessive alcohol can lead to Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which can result in low birth weight, smaller-than-normal head circumference(microcephaly), a flattened face, heart defects, low IQ, behavioural problems and learning difficulties. FAS has life-long consequences and puts toddlers at higher risk of behaviour problems, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and can lead to mental health difficulties later in life, including depression and alcohol or drug abuse.
Heavy alcohol consumption in the early months of pregnancy – seven or more drinks per week, or more than two drinks on multiple occasions (which is light by today’s relaxed attitudes towards drinking) – is regarded as particularly dangerous.
But keep in mind that most babies affected by FAS are born to mothers who drink excessively throughout pregnancy. If you had 1–2 drinks per week before you knew you were pregnant, the risk to your baby is likely to be low. The real issue is intoxication or binge drinking while pregnant – something that’s hardly good for your general health, anyway.
Is the odd glass ok?
Heavy drinking aside, researchers have found that there may actually be benefits to having a glass or two each week during pregnancy.
A recent UK study of over 12,000 three-year-old children found that those born to mothers who drank lightly during pregnancy (1–2 drinks/week) had fewer cognitive deficits and fewer behavioural, emotional and peer difficulties, compared with those children born to abstaining mothers or those who drank heavily while pregnant. In fact, there were some benefits associated with light alcohol intake, such as less likelihood of hyperactivity in children. But much more research is needed before a a concrete link can be established.
The bottom line
It’s always wise to play it safe when pregnant, so no alcohol is the best option. If you do sip, stick to one glass of wine, champagne or spirits a week. If you can’t stick to ‘just one’, steer clear entirely.