Saturday, 17 November 2012

Why you 'probably’ shouldn’t drink during pregnancy

Sometimes you have to be a rude and nasty girl, to make people sit up and listen to you. When people I know are pregnant, and the subject of alcohol comes up, I feel the need to do this. It feels too important to be polite and pleasant and let them get on with it. So I was delighted to wake up to this headline on Thursday this week: 'Moderate drinking in pregnancy harms IQ'.

The BBC article reports a new piece of research from Oxford and Bristol universities, which looked at the IQ scores of 4,000 children and the alcohol intake of their mothers. It found that a ‘moderate’ alcohol intake of one to six units a week during pregnancy had a very small affect on the children’s IQ. It was pretty tiny - just one or two points of their IQ.

But who wants their child to one or two cards short of the full deck?

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1954

You know you shouldn’t...

Everyone knows you shouldn't drink during pregnancy. It’s bloody obvious that it’s not going to be good for your developing child.

This famous photograph, shows a small boy carrying two bottles of wine. The sinister aspect is that his face shows the signs of foetal alcohol disorder (FAS).

I feel strongly about this, because I’ve met adoptive parents who deal with the effects of the extreme end of this – bringing up the children of alcoholic mothers who didn’t moderate their drinking during pregnancy and as a result gave birth to children whose problems can include: heart defects, sight/hearing impairment, hyperactivity, attention problems, cognitive problems, impaired coordination, learning difficulties, impaired memory. For more about this, read Matthew’s Story. 

Protect your child with magic beans

All the pregnant women I have known will do pretty much anything to protect their unborn child. If you tell a pregnant woman that rubbing baked beans onto her belly will promote foetal brain development and help her child become the next Einstein/Shakespeare, she will probably do it. 

The trouble is, despite knowing for decades that alcohol and pregnancy shouldn’t really mix, we’ve not yet managed to come up with a coherent or coordinated message. 

Alcohol and the foetus

During the different stages of pregnancy, different parts of the foetus are being formed at different times. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy, can affect the development of whichever parts are developing at that time. For example, the heart is developing during weeks four and five, so drinking during this time could lead the baby to have heart problems. Drinking when the eyes are developing could lead to the child having sight problems. 

This is a well-known and extremely scary photo. On the right it shows a normal brain. On the left it shows a brain damaged by alcohol. 
No one is suggesting that if you have one drink a week, or even just a couple of drinks over your whole pregnancy, that this will happen to your child. It definitely won’t. This is the result of serious and sustained alcoholism. With just the odd drink or two, probably your child will be absolutely fine. But it’s this ‘probably’ that bothers me. 

Current guidelines on drinking during pregnancy

Women are clearly told not to drink much during pregnancy, but what’s not clear is whether it’s really OK to have the odd glass, or whether they should abstain completely. Drinking in the first and second trimesters, when the baby’s brain is developing, is the most dangerous time, so women are sometimes told to avoid drinking at this time, and wait until the final three months of pregnancy. 

Part of the problem is that if drinking small amounts of alcohol does have an affect on unborn babies, then it is very small, and therefore difficult to detect amid the many other factors that influence children’s development. Previous studies have produced inconsistent and confusing evidence about this. 

Relatively little harm

Dr Arun Ghosh, who is interviewed in the BBC report, ends by saying that women shouldn’t drink at all during pregnancy, but if you have the odd drink “You’ll do relatively little harm, if any at all, to your baby.”

But do you really want to do "relatively little" harm to your baby. Wouldn’t you prefer to not have a glass of wine, and therefore do no harm at all? Is having a drink really worth any risk, however tiny?

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