For writer Paula Chambers, weekends have changed. Fridays used to mean margaritas with friends. Saturdays, it was beer and football. And at Sunday dinner, the wine flowed. But since Chambers found out she was pregnant, she’s been abstaining from alcohol, while her nonpregnant buddies indulge. “I wouldn’t call it a hardship,” says Chambers, 30. “But I would say it’s inconvenient.”
Pregnant Women Drinking More
The issue of drinking alcohol during pregnancy presents a dilemma for many expectant mothers. Is it safe to drink at all? If so, how much? The decision is personal, but there is a surprising public-health perspective. According to a 1997 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, four times as many pregnant women drink more frequently today than they did in 1990. On average, about 140,000 women consume at least seven drinks per week or five drinks on a single occasion while they are pregnant.
More than 500,000 women drink alcohol at least one time during pregnancy, and that number is on the rise. According to the CDC, only 12.4 percent of women consumed any alcohol during pregnancy in 1991. In a 1995 survey, that number had jumped to 16.3 percent.
Why are more pregnant women drinking? And why are some pregnant women who drink imbibing more? No one knows. “Maybe the level of awareness about the risk of alcohol during pregnancy isn’t as great as it was in the 1980s,” says Kenneth Warren, Ph.D., director of scientific affairs at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Warren also says that women may be missing the health message. For two decades, that message has been the same: Abstain. Researchers long have warned that heavy drinking — downing at least two drinks per day while pregnant — leads to fetal alcohol syndrome, in which children weigh less, develop abnormally and are born with unusual facial features.
Today, the big issue is moderate drinking, which is far more common and can lead to alcohol-related birth defects such as low birth weight, attention problems and delayed development. Scientists finally are beginning to understand how even the occasional drink may affect an unborn child. How frequently you imbibe and how much at one sitting — both make a difference.
Moderate drinking usually means an average of one drink (.5 to .99 ounce of alcohol) per day. The studies are conflicting about its effects. One report, for example, found that women who have a few drinks per week tend to deliver smaller babies than normal. But other research suggests that low amounts of alcohol may be safe and that binge drinking (five or more drinks on a single occasion) is the major danger.
“The data show that it’s probably never very dangerous to have a single drink,” says Joseph Jacobson, Ph.D., a psychologist and researcher at Wayne State University in Detroit. “It’s also never very safe to have four or five drinks at a time.” But not everyone agrees that a glass of wine is fine. Many researchers say they don’t know how much alcohol is safe, and until they do, the safest amount for you and your baby is none at all.