With a number of pregnant friends and friends who are trying to conceive I hear a lot about whether it's safe to drink whilst pregnant. Most of them believe or have been told by their Ob/Gyn or general practitioner that it is safe to drink small quantities of alcohol during pregnancy. Many of these friends also believe (and have advised me during my own efforts to fall pregnant) that it is completely safe to drink significant quantities of alcohol in the first six weeks or before pregnancy has been confirmed.
As a Science graduate this seemed highly unlikely to me…after all if one or two glasses of wine can make me, a 65kg fully grown adult, feel a little tipsy (and can impair even slightly my driving abilities etc) then surely it would have an even greater impact on something a squillion times smaller than myself. I also wondered how, given how differently alcohol affects different people, there could possibly be an absolute "safe" or guideline amount to drink during pregnancy.
Now don't get me wrong - I am no wowser who is against the consumption of alcohol. I am an Australian (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie Oi Oi Oi and all that)…and, as you may be aware, we are known to love a drink or twenty. So I decided to do some research and try and find out, once and for all, whether my friends and I really could safely consume the occasional glass of chardonnay during pregnancy. Here is what I found:
When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol in her blood passes through the placenta and reaches the baby. This means that when you drink, your baby drinks. However the impact of your alcohol consumption on him or her is far more significant that the impact it has on you...after all you are significantly larger and you are not in the midst of developing your heart, lungs, brain, limbs etc.
Furthermore drinking alcohol in the first few weeks, possibly before you know you're pregnant is NOT safer - in fact it is the most dangerous period for a baby. The first trimester is when the most important development occurs in your baby - this is when her heart, brain, spine, organs etc will develop - therefore as soon as you start trying to conceive you should seriously consider cutting or avoiding alcohol consumption.
Excessive alcohol consumption can result in what's known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This is the leading known preventable cause of mental retardation in the United States. Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome have permanent mental and behavioral problems and they often have distinctly malformed facial features. They can NEVER grow out of this and they can NEVER be cured. However even modest amounts of alcohol are thought to have impacts that may include increased risk of miscarriage, low birth weight, difficulty in breast feeding, sleeping problems and behavioural disorders that may not become obvious for years after your baby is born.
"My friend drank during her pregnancy and her baby is fine":
In the face of my research findings - many of my friends have presented me with anecdotal evidence of their cousin's, sister's neighbour's babies - all of whom seem perfectly normal despite the fact that their mother drank relatively small amounts through-out their pregnancy. My question to them has been - fine compared to what? If alcohol consumption during pregnancy can, as an example, negatively impact the intelligence of a baby then how can we know, with certainty, that a seemingly normal baby hasn't been affected, even slightly, by the alcohol consumed by the mother? This baby may be of normal intelligence - but what might it have been if no alcohol had been consumed?. Surely the only baby we can really compare it to is the baby it could've been if no alcohol had been consumed.
In summary: Although risk does appear to increase and decrease with the amount consumed researchers have not identified a safe level of alcohol consumption for the developing fetus. It is proven excessive amounts of alcohol consumed during pregnancy is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation in the United States. Moderate and small amounts of alcohol also carry a definite risk of permanently harming your child. So while I love a drink as much as the next girl - I have to ask if the risk is worth the lifetime of possible regret. For me - the answer is a definite no.