“No amount of alcohol should be considered safe to drink during any trimester of pregnancy,” wrote the  the American Academy of Pediatrics in a report which identified ingesting alcohol during pregnancy as the leading cause of preventable birth defects.

pregnant woman

Credit: Public Domain

“There is no safe amount, no safe time, and no safe type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. It’s just not worth the risk,” said Dr. Cheryl Tan, an epidemiologist at the CDC.

The literature linking the dangers of alcohol during pregnancy is vast and extensive. It’s also very confusing. Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause all sorts of complications like  fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a group of conditions causing different abnormalities. One study cited by the pediatricians suggests the risk of having a baby with growth retardation increases even if a woman has just one alcoholic drink a day. Mothers who drunk during pregnancy were more likely to have kids with neurodevelopment issues such as troubles with abstract reasoning, information processing, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“The research suggests that the smartest choice for women who are pregnant is to just abstain from alcohol completely,” said Dr. Janet F. Williams, one of the leading authors of the report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Now, you might that’s not news. After all we see the government-mandated warnings on alcoholic beverage labels everywhere nowadays. The science, however, isn’t quite clear. While there are a lot of studies that suggest the risk of child abnormalities goes up with alcohol intake, others didn’t reach the same conclusions. One study published in 2008 found “children born to mothers who drank up to 1–2 drinks per week or per occasion during pregnancy were not at increased risk of clinically relevant behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits compared with children of abstinent mothers.” What’s more in a fit of irony, the same researchers found  boys born to mothers who had up to 1–2 drinks per week or per occasion were less likely to have conduct problems or hyperactivity.  Girls were less likely to have emotional symptoms and peer problems compared with those born to abstainers. And strikingly, boys born to light drinkers had higher cognitive ability test scores. Another study found total abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy was correlated with an increased risk of stillbirth (alcohol inhibits uterine contractions). There are other studies which don’t support the hypothesis that mild drinking is linked to child abnormalities. Is it that  the standards for confounding factors and statistical significance may have been too low? Might be. It’s likelier, however, that these differences in findings can be attributed to the dose. The literature on the subject isn’t very clear on what constitutes “light”, “mild” or “binge” drinking, and most accounts rely on self-reporting which can be inaccurate.

What the American Academy of Pediatrics is doing is staying on the safe side, considering that this is the most ethical position available. According to the report, 10% of women regularly ingest alcoholic beverages and 3% say they consume more varied drinks on marked occasions.

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