should I drink?

A sobering question all pregnant women need to ask themselves


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.

An Occasional Splurge?

“A woman asks, ‘Is one drink going to hurt my baby?’” says Charles Goodlett, Ph.D., a psychologist at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis who also has extensively researched the topic. “If you mean one drink poured into a big Mason jar, that’s a large amount of alcohol in a short time. How you define one drink is important.”

What about when you drink? Many women believe it’s safer to drink during the third trimester than the first. In fact, researchers say, all stages of pregnancy contain “critical periods” of development for different parts of your baby’s body. Drinking during the first trimester can lead to physical abnormalities in a baby’s face or head. During the second trimester — a big time for brain development — heavy drinking may cause certain types of brain damage. And excessive alcohol in the third trimester can lead to stunted growth. In other words, there isn’t a “safe” time to drink during pregnancy.

Drinking While Nursing

Of course, your baby’s development doesn’t stop in the womb. If you drink while breastfeeding, your child will ingest some of that alcohol, too. “Even though the alcohol is diluted in your bloodstream, a [nursing] child can ingest enough of it to have an effect,” Warren says. For that reason, many public-health specialists say nursing mothers should abstain as well.

Much like your tightest jeans and late-night movies, cutting back on or

giving up alcohol altogether is a temporary trade-off for a healthy baby. But there is a way to make things easier: Recruit help. With your partner, create a social life in which drinking isn’t a temptation, Jacobson says. Chambers’ husband, for example, has stopped buying alcohol until they can enjoy it together. The time to lift a glass in cheer will eventually come, probably sooner than you think.