Is Moderate Drinking During Pregnancy OK?

Studies find no problems in kids, but health experts express caution.

Drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy may not cause developmental problems in five-year-olds, studies find. (Photo: Simon Katzer/Getty Images)

Jun 20, 2012
Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

Many mothers-to-be studiously avoid drinking during pregnancy, fearful that alcohol might harm their babies. But a new group of studies suggest that moderate amounts of alcohol during early pregnancy may have no ill effects on young children.

Five Danish studies published today in the journal BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that drinking low to moderate amounts of alcohol early in a pregnancy wasn’t linked with mental or developmental problems in five-year-olds.

The study included 1,628 women, average age about 31. About half were first-time mothers. The children were given tests that measured IQ, attention span, organization, self-control and planning.

In general, children of mothers whose drinking was in the low range (one to four drinks per week) or moderate range (five to eight drinks per week) showed no developmental deficits at age five, compared to women who never drank. The same was seen among children of mothers who were binge drinkers, defined as drinking five or more drinks on a single occasion.

However, drinking high levels of alcohol—nine or more drinks per week—was linked with having a lower attention span among five-year-olds.

Here’s where it gets a bit sticky: the size of a standard drink differs from country to country. In Denmark a standard drink is 12 grams of pure alcohol. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control define it as 14 grams of pure alcohol, the amount found in a 12-ounce beer or a five-ounce glass of wine. In the UK the standard is about 8 grams.

Before you uncork the chardonnay, many health experts recommend expectant mothers stay away from alcohol, siting other studies that have shown a possible link between drinking and birth defects.

In a U.S. News & World Report story Bruce Goldman, director of Substance Abuse Services at the Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., said, “Women may underestimate and have difficulty acknowledging the frequency or quantity of alcohol consumed,” he said. “Those suffering from alcoholism may attempt to rationalize that it is safe to drink moderately, something they may ultimately be unable to do.”

Even the authors of the study tempered their advice, saying, “More research is needed to look at long term effects of alcohol consumption on children. The best advice is to choose not to drink, however small amounts have not been shown to be harmful.”

What are your thoughts on moderate drinking during pregnancy?

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