New Research Sparks Controversy Over Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy


New headlines following a study into the effects of drinking during pregnancy have sparked controversy and concern among expectant mothers.

If you’ve been keeping up to date with the latest news or scrolling through Twitter, you may have noticed your feeds filling with comments on a new study that looks at the effects of alcohol and drinking during pregnancy.

What to avoid during pregnancy, and the topic of alcohol during pregnancy has long been a hot topic among health professionals. Now, new research carried out by the Journal of Epidemiology has sparked a number of alarming headlines in the press and caused some confusion and concern over the alcohol consumption guidelines for pregnant women.

After reviewing 23 existing studies on the effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy on an unborn baby, the journal published results citing a “likely causal detrimental role of prenatal alcohol exposure on cognitive outcomes and weaker evidence for a decrease in birthweight”. This means the studies found there to be a greater correlation between  alcohol consumption during pregnancy and possible cognitive developmental issues in an unborn child.

Although these findings are nothing new – the Chief Medical Officers for the UK and the NHS have long maintained the safest approach is to avoid drinking alcohol when pregnant, to keep risks to you baby to a minimum – the wording of this research has prompted a flurry of alarmist headlines.

A number of publications have interpreted the studies as proof that drinking any alcohol during pregnancy will cause harm to your unborn child, sparking concern among expectant mothers over seemingly conflicting advice. Other research has previously suggested a very small amount of alcohol will not cause harm to your baby.

The facts remain, however, that experts are still unsure as to exactly how much – if any – alcohol is safe for you to have during pregnancy.

In an attempt to ease fears and dispel misconceptions, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and WRISK – a project set up in collaboration with researcher Heather Trickey to improve the way risks during pregnancy are communicated – have outlined how best to interpret the research.

Taking to Twitter, WRISK said of the headlines, “In the review itself the authors are clear it is not ‘solid evidence’, and nor do their findings show that ‘occasional drinks’ cause harm.

According to Grazia, the BPAS also shared a statement with further comment on the study, explaining that the research showed no new evidence.

“This is interesting research, but provides no new evidence of harm at lower levels of alcohol consumption, which is what most women are concerned by,” Director of External Affairs at BPAS, Claire Murphy, explained.

Acknowledging the conflicting information and attempting to comfort concerned parents-to-be, she added: “Most women accept and abide by the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach of abstaining from alcohol in pregnancy, as recommended by the Chief Medical Officer – but this is a precautionary rather than an evidence-based recommendation.”

alcohol-during-pregnancyIs it Safe to Occasionally Drink When Pregnant?

As stated on the NHS’ guide to drinking while pregnant, drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby. The more you drink, the greater the risk. However, there is not evidential proof of how the smallest amount of alcohol will affect your unborn child.

Despite a lack of ‘solid evidence’ on the effects of a low intake of alcohol during the early stages of pregnancy, the NHS’ advice is to avoid any alcohol as the safest option for your unborn child.

If there’s even the slightest concern of causing harm to your unborn child, it’s best to avoid the situation altogether. However, scaremongering and misinformation is no comfort to already concerned mums-to-be.

How Does Alcohol Affect my Baby?

When you drink, alcohol passes from your blood through the placenta and to your baby.

However, your baby cannot process alcohol as a healthy adult can, and therefore, too much exposure to alcohol can have a detrimental effect on their development.

“Drinking alcohol, especially in the first three months of pregnancy, increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and your baby having a low birth weight,” states the NHS website.

“Drinking after the first three months of your pregnancy could affect your baby after they’re born.”

What is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome?

As previously stated, there are risks associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

In the first few weeks of your pregnancy, this could result in loss of pregnancy. Sometimes, these risks can manifest in mental and physical problems for your baby. This is called foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

Symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome

FAS is a type of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which is the name given to all the various problems that may affect children if their mother drinks alcohol in pregnancy. The symptoms include:

  • A smaller head than average
  • Growth issues. The baby may be smaller than average at birth, and then grow slowly as they get older. It can lead to the child going on to be shorter than average as an adult.
  • Distinctive facial features. These include small eyes, a thin upper lip, and a smooth area between the nose and upper lip
  • Problems with movement and balance
  • Learning difficulties
  • Issues with attention, concentration or hyperactivity
  • Problems with the liver, kidneys, heart or other organs
  • Hearing and vision difficulties

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