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Alcohol in Pregnancy: Yes or No?

Every time one study claims women should cut out drinking, another study suggests a little drink is fine in pregnancy - so what should you do?

Posted: 29 June 2010
by Laura Lee Davies

Another day, another verdict on drinking in pregnancy! Unlike smoking in pregnancy, for which there are several large studies which can definitively prove that smoking when expecting a baby IS harmful, the cases for and against drinking in moderation continue to swing back and forth. Certainly, because alcohol goes into your bloodstream and your baby gets all his nutrition from your blood, it is hard to avoid the fact that alcohol in pregnancy is, generally speaking, not a good idea.
However, is the odd drink now and again acceptable?

What is safe drinking in pregnancy?
In 2007, the Department of Health released new guidelines about drinking when expecting. Their official line is now that you should have NO units of alcohol per week during pregnancy. However, they also temper this with a concession that if you do, you should have no more than one to two units of alcohol a week during pregnancy. For more about this announcement, you can read about it and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' reaction here.
However, a medical study published last year then came out saying there was no clear evidence that even binge drinking necessarily affected fetal development. (For more on this story, click here.) This finding should NOT be taken as a green light to drink large amounts of alcohol throughout pregnancy because the condition of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is a known and serious risk if you do.
To add to the confusion, autumn 2008 has produced another study, from University College London, which claims to have looked at the cases of 12,500 children aged three years and noted their cognitive ability and behaviour. It found that very moderate drinking – that is, a maximum of one or two units per week or per occasion - does not have a negative affect on the child. For more on this, click here.

So what should you believe?
You need to feel confident that you are doing the right thing for you and your baby. If you would prefer to completely cut out alcohol during pregnancy, then that is a good choice.
However, the overall medical thinking seems to suggest that a maximum of one or two units very occasionally during pregnancy (and certainly not more than once a week, and definitely not 'saving up' units to drink all in one go) does not harm the fetus.
One of the most popular arguments for keeping the message simple and saying 'no alcohol' is that experts fear women will find it hard to gauge what's a safe limit unless they are told to cut out drink completely. It is true that many of us would be surprised how little one unit actually is (especially now that wines are generally stronger than they used to be, and we rarely measure out a small glass size when we drink).

The best idea, if you really do miss drinking, is to avoid stronger drinks like spirits altogether, and to occasionally treat yourself to one regular beer or one glass of wine that you really like so that you can savour it.
Read our tips for cutting out booze. And if you really get bored of orange juice, why not try some alcohol-free wines and beers?

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