Women in the United States have been strongly urged to abstain from drinking alcohol during pregnancy for so many years that the sight of a woman sipping a glass of wine while expecting is fairly scandalous to many. But that could be changing now, as new research suggests that light drinking during pregnancy might not pose as much harm to an unborn baby as previously thought.
A series of five studies of 1,628 Danish women released in 2012 by the Aarhus University in Denmark found that the 5-year-old children of women who drank up to eight drinks a week during pregnancy showed no ill effects on intelligence or self-control.
But despite the Danish studies, most American researchers and doctors are sticking to the teetotaling message for expectant mothers, citing health concerns, such as fetal alcohol syndrome.
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“The primary effect is most likely during the first trimester,” when facial features, heart, organs, bones and the central nervous system are developing, says Kenneth Jones, M.D., chief of the division of dysmorphology/terology in the department of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego. “But the brain develops throughout pregnancy, so alcohol could have an effect at any time.”
Still, American women aren’t exactly abstaining. According to a 2012 study of nearly 14,000 pregnant women, 1 in 13 moms-to-be had at least one drink during the previous month, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC ) found.
Although the first federal advisory on alcohol and pregnancy was released in 1977, following the first international conference on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, the U.S. Surgeon General released another advisory against potential dangers of drinking during pregnancy in 1981, then followed up with a much stronger warning in 2005.
“The message ‘don’t drink’ might not be reaching all women for a number of reasons,” says study author Claire M. Marchetta, M.P.H., a research fellow working with the prevention research branch of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the CDC in Atlanta. “Women might be getting mixed messages from a variety of sources, such as media, peers, family and health care providers.”
Many U.S. studies estimate that 0.3 to 1.5 infants per 1,000 births have fetal alcohol syndrome. In his 2011 study of 992 women and their infants, Jones and his colleagues found that some classic features of fetal alcohol syndrome (the flat, grooveless space between the nose and upper lip, a thin upper lip and smaller eye slits) were associated with drinking in the first trimester—and the more participants drank, the greater the risk.
“But there wasn’t a clear-cut threshold,” says epidemiologist Christina Chambers, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at UCSD and the study’s co-author.
So should you abstain from alcohol during pregnancy?
“If a woman called me and said ‘I just found out I’m six weeks pregnant, and I had two glasses of wine two days ago,’ I’d tell her not to worry,” Jones says. “But my overall recommendation is ‘don’t drink.’ ”