Wondering if it's safe to have alcohol during pregnancy? The definitive answer to this vexing question.

By Jennifer Kelly Geddes
May 12, 2014
pregnant woman drinking red wine
Credit: Veer

When it comes to drinking alcohol during pregnancy, getting a straight answer about what's safe and what isn't can be confusing. On one hand, a Danish study recently reported a correlation between expectant mothers who drank one glass of wine a week and better mental health in their children. On the other, a new British study found that women who drank a small glass of wine once or twice a week early in their pregnancy may bear a smaller baby and be at higher risk for a premature birth. So when it comes to fears of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and your developing baby's safety, what's okay when you're expecting?

"There are simply not enough studies out there for us to feel confident that drinking during pregnancy is safe," says Eve Espey, M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico and a spokesperson for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). "In the face of conflicting data, the best course is to avoid alcohol completely."

The problem is that doctors don't know how much alcohol can put a baby at risk -- but they do know that the more you consume, the greater your chances of having a baby with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Since there's no known safe amount, the wise move is to abstain from alcohol from the moment you decide you'd like to conceive.

Still, cultural norms and family traditions can be hard to break, so here are a few common scenarios you may come up against and the information you'll need to make the best decision.

My doctor says an occasional glass of wine is okay.

"A glass 'here and there' may mean different things to different people and could mean a significant amount of alcohol to some women," Dr. Espey says. In fact, ACOG makes it quite clear: Women are advised not to consume alcohol during pregnancy.

A champagne toast on New Year's doesn't count.

Your developing baby doesn't know if you're having Tuesday-night spaghetti or a four-course meal in a fancy restaurant. But he does understand he's getting his food from you -- and it's pretty tasty! The same holds true for any alcohol you might drink. Even if it's an expensive glass of bubbly at a party rather than a shot of tequila in a dive bar, it's still alcohol, and it's still considered a risk. Every sip matters.

My mother drank (and smoked!) when she was pregnant with me and I'm just fine.

Our parents did many things that we know today to be ill-advised. The effects of drinking alcohol are solidly established. Fetal alcohol syndrome might be the result if you drink while pregnant, so this is one case where you don't need to listen to your mother.

I'm nearly due, so one drink now can't hurt -- can it?

You may think that because you've reached the 9-month mark and your baby is about to arrive, a bit of wine won't make much difference. Some women may also believe that a relaxing drink can help kick-start labor. Both assumptions, however, are false. Even though drinking earlier in pregnancy seems to do the most damage, alcohol consumption at any point is still problematic. It can be hard to wait for birth, especially if your babe is overdue, but it's worth it for your baby's health.

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