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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.

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.”

Playing it Safe

Ultimately, it’s up to each mom-to-be to consult with her doctor and decide if she’ll have the occasional small drink. Those who opt to give up alcohol may miss unwinding with a cocktail, but Archie thinks they won’t regret being cautious.

“In the life of you and your child, it’s such a small amount of time and the sacrifice is not so great. It’s definitely not the biggest sacrifice you’ll make when raising your child,” she says. “I think it’s the appropriate amount of caution to bring to something that’s so miraculous and beautiful.”

Experts say that women with certain risk factors should be especially careful about avoiding alcohol while pregnant. You probably should not drink, for example, if you have liver disease, a history of addiction, or are on any medications that may conflict with alcohol, such as antidepressants.

And if you’re concerned that you are drinking too much and feel that you cannot stop -- during your pregnancy or at any other time -- talk with your doctor. He or she can refer you for counseling or treatment.

Reviewed on June 22, 2012

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