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When my mom was having kids (3 of us), her standard for prenatal care came from a book written by Johns Hopkins University in 1949, entitled, “Expectant Motherhood.” This book stipulates “safe” levels of cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Sixty plus years ago the prevailing medical wisdom was that a pregnant woman shouldn’t smoke more than 10 cigarettes a day (remember these were non filtered in the late ’40s) and she shouldn’t drink more than two alcoholic drinks per day.

I’m sure that my mom smoked a little and she drank in moderation during all of her pregnancies, although I did ask her once about her level of use and she replied that she cut down from her usual moderate levels during pregnancy, just to make sure. Anyway, my brother, sister, and I are in our 50s and so far it appears that we are doing OK. So, what’s all the buzz about women smoking, drinking, and using certain drugs during pregnancy?

Since the 1940s, our knowledge about what is safe and unsafe for anunborn child has increased exponentially. We’ve known for a long time that pregnant women shouldn’t smoke cigarettes at all. And the standard for drinking is, “There are no safe levels of alcohol during pregnancy.”

That last statement is a little puzzling because I’m sure my mom drank a little during all of her pregnancies. Is there something missing here? Can’t a pregnant woman just drink a little and not worry about it?

Answering that question requires an understanding of what alcohol does and when it does it during the pregnancy. You see, the unborn child is affected by the alcohol in relation to the precise development that he/she is going through at the time the alcohol is ingested. So, if a woman drinks a few drinks a night during the time that certain organs are being formed, then it is possible that those organs may be impacted by that drinking. Related to that is the fact that no one really knows how much alcohol is too much during pregnancy so it’s proper and safe to say, “Don’t drink at all during pregnancy.”

Another issue is the woman who is addicted. What should she do? Well, I hope that everyone that is addicted gets help and gets into recovery. In the case of an addicted woman who is pregnant, the best advise is, “Quit immediately, get help for your addiction problem, and seek prenatal care!”

This cannot be stated plainly enough. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and all of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders are totally preventable if a woman doesn’t use alcohol or other drugs while pregnant. If she uses a chemical substance and finds out she’s pregnant, then quitting immediately is the next best thing.

There’s a lot to say on this topic and I’ll return to it later in the year. But suffice it to say that often pregnant women don’t get the help they need because they are embarrassed, ashamed, or just don’t understand. We need to take time to engage these women in any way we can for their sake and for the sake of their children.