A BMJ Study published this month shows almost 40% of Australian women drink alcohol during pregnancy, despite our guidelines advising against any alcohol.  The study followed 18,000 women from Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Ireland and the proportions were similar across all the countries. The number of women drinking had reduced significantly by the second trimester but 10% continued to drink throughout pregnancy in Australia.

Alcohol increases the risk of miscarriage in the first trimester and is linked to premature birth, heavy drinking throughout pregnancy can result in foetal alcohol syndrome. The risks of low to moderate alcohol consumption (no more than two standard drinks per day and seven standard drinks per week) are not clear, particularly mid-trimester and many researchers have attempted to analyse the effects of low to moderate alcohol consumption on the health and development of children, but the results are difficult to analyse.  Reasons given are:

  • Women who drink small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy tend to be more affluent and better educated and their children are likely to be healthier and perform better on testing
  • Survey participants notoriously underestimate and do not disclose the actual amount of alcohol consumed, it is easy to drink more alcohol than you think and move into the range known to cause harm
  • The extent each woman clears alcohol after drinking a standard drink varies, meaning the same amount of alcohol can result in harm to one baby, but not another
  • The guidelines vary for each country
  • Confusion regarding the guidelines, which have shifted from abstinence in 1992, to permitting a small amount in 2001 and back to abstinence in 2009

There is good evidence that 3-4 standard drinks ( equates to 2 average glasses of wine ) once or twice per week  increases the risk of premature birth and the child developing behavioural problems including aggression, depression and anxiety between the ages of 2 and 15yrs.  We do know alcohol crosses the placenta and can affect the developing brain and organs in early pregnancy and as functional brain development continues into the second and third trimester and may also be affected by alcohol. Scientists may never be able to prove that low level alcohol in pregnancy is safe, making abstinence the safest option

The researchers concluded that "alcohol use during pregnancy is prevalent and socially pervasive in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia." They suggest that this shows low adherence to the guidelines recommending complete abstinence and new policies and interventions are needed to reduce women's alcohol consumption both before and during pregnancy.

There is an on-line support community,( , which is an initiative of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. It provides  a supportive community and encourages the family and partners of pregnant women to remain alcohol free while their loved one is pregnant.  Research has demonstrated that many women were more likely to avoid alcohol if their partners also do the same.

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