The Allure of Alcohol: Why do Women Continue to Drink during Pregnancy?
By Lori Wolfe, Certified Genetic Counselor and Teratogen Information Specialist,
MotherToBaby North Texas
Have you ever had a pregnant friend tell you, "it is OK to have just one glass of wine now and then, that’s what my doctor said," or "my mother drank beer when she was pregnant with me, and I turned out fine." As a Teratogen Counselor (a birth defects expert), I hear these statements more than you would imagine. You may think it is common knowledge that there is no safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy, and that any use of alcohol while pregnant has the potential to harm the baby. Yet that message is not getting out there to everyone. Studies have long shown that heavy use of alcohol during pregnancy can cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, while more recent studies suggest that moderate use (and possibly even light use) can cause long term developmental problems in an exposed child. In fact, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is thought to be the leading cause of developmental delays in children. Despite this, studies also show that 1 in 10 to 1 in 13 women continue light drinking of alcohol, even after they know they are pregnant. So I started thinking… Why do some woman continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy?
1. You Didn’t Know You Were Pregnant
Most women find out they’re pregnant when they are 4-6 weeks along – and many may not recognize the signs of pregnancy for quite a few months. So unless you are planning your pregnancy (50% of all pregnancies today are unplanned!), you may indulge in alcoholic beverages before you even know you are pregnant. Thankfully, the majority of women will stop using alcohol once they find out they are pregnant. But unfortunately, the damage could already be done. Harmful exposures (like alcohol) during those first critical weeks of pregnancy have the greatest risk of causing major birth defects. This is why experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that women avoid alcohol not only if they are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, but also if they are sexually active and not using an effective method of birth control.
2. Mixed Messages
It’s not uncommon for pregnant women to receive mixed messages from people they trust about how safe alcohol may be in pregnancy. Even her own doctor may tell her that an occasional glass of alcohol won’t harm her baby. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, even among healthcare providers! It’s important for you and your healthcare provider to keep in mind that the experts at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics
(among many others) advise that women avoid alcohol entirely while pregnant, because no amount of alcohol – even light-to-moderate amounts – can be considered safe for a developing baby.
3. It’s A Social Thing
Social pressure from family or friends can be strong. If a woman is used to going out on weekends with her friends and everyone has a glass of wine, she may feel that she needs to drink too, just to fit in. Plus many women feel that the risk of having just a little alcohol during pregnancy is low. These same woman may be doing everything else that they can to remove all other risks to their pregnancy, but they still continue to use alcohol. At MotherToBaby, we understand that the use of alcohol during pregnancy may have perceived benefits to a woman. But we also know that alcohol provides ZERO benefit for a developing baby, and, in fact, can only harm the baby. And because the exact amount of alcohol that could harm a baby is unknown at this point (and does vary woman-to-woman and even pregnancy-to-pregnancy), our philosophy is: WHY TAKE THE RISK?
4. It Helps Me Relax, De-Stress, and Just Deal with Everyday Life
Recently a 35 year old caller told me that she continued to enjoy a half glass of wine every weekend as a treat to herself. "Susan" (not her real name) knew that she was not supposed to drink alcohol, and she even said she got a lot of negative feedback from family and friends, yet she continued to drink throughout her pregnancy. Without realizing it, Susan and other women may be using alcohol to help deal with other unrecognized issues in their lives, such as depression and anxiety, high levels of stress, or little outside support for the pregnancy. At MotherToBaby, it is our job to help women understand how fragile and vulnerable a pregnancy can be to certain exposures; alcohol is one of the dangerous ones. While it may seem a hardship to give up alcohol entirely while pregnant, think about it this way: Pregnancy is only 9 months long (less if you base it on when a woman learns she is pregnant). If a woman is strong enough to survive childbirth, courageous enough to take on the toughest job on earth (parenthood), and resilient enough to survive that job, then abstaining from alcohol for the duration of a pregnancy is nothing. And if it means giving your baby a chance at the best possible start in life, then not drinking alcohol while pregnant is everything.
What Do We Know? There is not a known safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy.
We have known about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome for over 40 years now. Dr. Kenneth Jones, the doctor who first named Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in 1973 states: "When talking about the prenatal effects of alcohol, we usually think exclusively about the dose, the strength, and the timing of alcohol exposure. However, perhaps even more important are factors involving the mother – her genetic background and nutritional status to name just two. Without knowing those genetic and nutritional factors that are critically involved with the way a woman metabolizes alcohol, it is not possible to make any generalizations about a "safe" amount of alcohol during pregnancy." Studies have shown moderate use, and possibly even light use, of alcohol during pregnancy can cause long term developmental problems in the exposed children. In fact, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is thought to be the leading cause of developmental delays in children. Scientists are continuing to study how and why alcohol affects the developing baby, and in future years we will know more about this. But for now we do know there are always risks with drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
Lori Wolfe is a board certified Genetic Counselor and the Director of MotherToBaby’s North Texas affiliate. MotherToBaby aims to educate women about medications and more during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Along with answering women’s and health professionals’ questions regarding exposures during pregnancy/breastfeeding via MotherToBaby’s toll-free number and by email, Wolfe also teaches at the University of North Texas, provides educational talks regarding pregnancy health in community clinics and high schools, and counsels adoptive parents.
MotherToBaby is a service of OTIS, a suggested resource by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about viruses, alcohol, medications, vaccines, diseases, or other exposures, call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626- 6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets, email an expert or chat live.