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Alcohol and Pregnancy: Is 'A Little Bit' Safe?

Find out what experts say about whether light drinking is risky when you’re pregnant.
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How Much Is Too Much? continued...

Because there are so many unknowns, the CDC, the U.S. Surgeon General, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics advise pregnant women not to drink alcohol at all.

They note, on their web sites, that pregnant women who drink alcohol risk giving birth to a child with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). These conditions range from mild to severe and include speech and language delays, learning disabilities, abnormal facial features, small head size, and many other problems.

More Research Is Needed

Although heavy drinking can obviously be harmful, the risks of light and moderate drinking aren’t as clear.

Some women may have been reassured by a study that was published in October 2010 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

In that study, researchers in the U.K. reported that the 5-year-old children of women who drank up to one to two alcoholic drinks per week or per occasion while pregnant were not at an increased risk of behavioral or cognitive problems. The authors noted, however, that it’s possible that developmental problems linked to maternal drinking could emerge later in childhood. They are planning a follow-up study to monitor the children as they grow older.

An Ongoing Debate

Many doctors agree with the stance of the CDC and Surgeon General and recommend that their pregnant patients avoid drinking.

“The way I see it is: If you wouldn’t give a 2-month-old a glass of wine, then why would you drink a glass of wine when you’re pregnant?” Garry says.

Carol Archie, MD, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is concerned that even small amounts of alcohol can affect a developing baby’s brain.

“We know that alcohol impacts brain cells and that the baby’s brain is constantly developing throughout the entire pregnancy,” she says. “So I would say to a pregnant mother that it’s probably best to abstain from all alcohol.”

Other doctors feel that pregnant women shouldn’t worry about having a small drink every once in a while.

“I’ve always told my patients that I think it’s a personal decision and there isn’t evidence that light drinking is dangerous,” says Marjorie Greenfield, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland and author of The Working Woman’s Pregnancy Book. “About one to two drinks per week is probably OK. But never consume more than two at a time or drink to the point of inebriation,” she says. Moritz also says she thinks “a celebratory glass of alcohol is more than likely fine -- for example, if someone is giving a toast on a holiday or at a birthday party.”

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