Drinking alcohol while pregnant has never been advised – yet a huge number of women are still doing it, new research has revealed.
Some 20 to 80 per cent of pregnant women questioned in the UK, Australia and New Zealand drink alcohol while pregnant, according to a study due to be published in the online journal BMJ Open.
These findings come just weeks after the British Medical Association warned that there’s no ‘safe’ limit for drinking while expecting a baby, and advised that pregnant women should refrain from having any alcohol at all.
The researchers analysed data from three studies carried out in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand and discovered that as many as 80 per cent of pregnant women may have drunk alcohol during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Ireland was found to have the highest rates of drinking in general, where 90 per cent of women admitted to drinking before pregnancy and 82 per cent afterwards. Some 45 per cent also admitted to binge drinking during pregnancy. In all of the countries, drinking was shown to stop during the second trimester of pregnancy and more educated women, and those who already had children, were shown to drink less.
The study’s authors wrote that “alcohol exposure may occur in over 75 per cent of pregnancies in the UK and Ireland.” But they noted that most of these women consumed alcohol at “very low levels” and the amount of pregnant women who drank heavily in all three of the studies was very small.
The study of 18,000 women showed that expectant mums were far more likely to be drinkers if they were also smokers. The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) says that just as much should be done to encourage pregnant women to quit drinking, as it is smoking.
“Smoking is known to worsen outcomes and the effects are even worse if combined with alcohol consumption,” says Louise Silverton, director for midwifery at the RCM. “Where midwives are encouraging women to quit smoking they should also ask about alcohol consumption and encourage abstinence during pregnancy.
“The overall number of pregnant women who continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy is very concerning, as there is no evidence that any level of consumption is safe for the growing baby. This is why the RCM continues to advise women to abstain from drinking alcohol when pregnant or if trying to conceive. Drinking around conception and during the first three months may also increase the chance of having a miscarriage.”
Risks of drinking while pregnant include miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and small birth weight – and it’s still not known exactly how much alcohol is safe to consume and how much can cause scary outcomes like these. When you drink, the alcohol passes from your blood through the placenta to your baby – who struggles to process it.
Sadly, doctors estimate that around 7,000 babies a year in Britain are born with complications because their mum drank alcohol while pregnant.The BMA isn’t the only expert group to suggest that pregnant women don’t drink alcohol at all – the NHS also advises mums to be cautious, stating on its website that “the safest approach is not to drink at all when you’re expecting.”
Meanwhile the Department of Health recommends that women who do opt for a drink stick to just one or two units a week, to minimise the risk to the baby. And the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence advises that women abstain from alcohol entirely during the first three months of pregnancy and then has the same recommendation as the Department of Health. You can read more about alcohol in pregnancy here.