Australian experts warn against drinking during pregnancy, despite UK study

Faith Castro
September 12, 2017

While there's "clear and compelling" links between heavy drinking during pregnancy and severe health consequences for children, there's no solid evidence about the impact of light drinking - defined as four "units" of alcohol a week, or about 32g.

"Women who have had a drink while pregnant should be reassured that they are unlikely to have caused their baby considerable harm, but if anxious, they should discuss this with their GP or midwife", said the researchers in a statement.

"We know that alcohol can cause harm both at a cellular level and a clinical level therefore the precautionary approach is safest and one of the reasons is that often people who are given the go-ahead to drink will drink more than they are advised to drink".

The team of researchers used all available research that has been carried out on the subject and found no evidence of harm other than an association between light drinking (up to four units of alcohol per week) and smaller babies.

"As the evidence is uncertain, the lowest risk approach is to avoid alcohol during pregnancy".

It found "some evidence" that drinking up to four units of alcohol per week may be associated with a higher risk of having a smaller baby or giving birth prematurely - but nothing conclusive.

"We were surprised that this very important topic was not researched as widely as expected", she said.

But the Bristol team emphasised that their review, which was funded by the National Institute for Health Research, referred to light drinking and that the effects they found were small.

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Two units of alcohol being equivalent to one pint of strong beer or a medium size glass (175ml) of light white wine.

Small amounts were defined as one to two United Kingdom units, once or twice a week - the recommended maximum level given in the Department of Health's previous guidance.

The new paper included a systematic review and analysis of previous studies on low alcohol consumption and pregnancy that were published between 1950 and July 2016.

"The question is really, 'What's the chance that if I just have this glass of champagne at my sister's wedding, is that going to be harmful?'" Horsager-Boehrer said, adding that her response is, "Nobody can quantify what that risk is".

"It is known that quantity and frequency of use, particularly binging, does correlate with increased risk", Williams said about fetal alcohol syndrome.

Heavy drinking has always been known to harm unborn babies and is linked to birth defects, developmental delay, behavioural problems and impaired intelligence.

Many decades ago, oddly enough, it was common for doctors in Ireland to advise pregnant and nursing women to sip Guinness for what they thought could have been some health benefits, experts say.

She added: "If pregnant women have concerns about their level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy, we encourage them to speak to their midwife who will be able to offer them advice and support".

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