Substance Abuse: 775-825-HELP

There has long been controversy about women who drink alcohol during pregnancy. In fact, the problem of birth defects and other problems caused by maternal drinking has become such an issue that the advice now given (at least officially) is, “No level of alcohol is safe for the unborn baby during pregnancy.”

This abstinence advice has been challenged by the findings of a study reported this fall in The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. According to one source, “Using data from the Millennium Cohort Study in Britain, a data-rich look at 11,500 children born in the U.K. 2000 and 2001, researchers at University College in London concluded that the children of women who drank ‘lightly’ — meaning up to one to two drinks a week — during pregnancy did no worse on cognitive tests at age 5 than children of mothers who did not drink at all. Actually, they did slightly better on the tests, which included things like ‘naming vocabulary,’ ‘picture similarities’ and ‘pattern construction.’”

According to the study, the children of mothers who went beyond “light drinking,” however, had noticeably lower scores.

This could be great news for women who would like to imbibe a little while pregnant but there are some troubling issues still.

This reminds me of a study published by the Rand Corporation in the late 1970s that proclaimed some alcoholics who were sober could possibly return to social drinking without ill effect. Regardless of the soundness of that science the real issue here is that every alcoholic I knew back then said, “I’m one of those. I can return to social drinking!” Disastrous thinking for a person who has the disease of alcoholism.

So, I see the same thing here. As many of the bloggers on the pregnant women and alcohol issue said, my mom drank alcohol (moderately I presume) during pregnancy and I’m pretty sure that I turned out OK in terms of thinking abilities and related items. But the point of telling women that no alcohol is safe isn’t about answering the question, “Is one drink safe? Is two safe? How about three?”

The point really is about what how close to the cliff do you want to go without falling off? For instance, what is one drink? I have known people who think that one drink was an 8 to 12 ounce martini. For another instance, the answer from an alcoholic when asked, “How much did you drink when you were arrested for drunk driving (for example)?” the answer is often, “I just had a couple.” As that elusive number is pursued, it often turns into 4 or 7 or 12 drinks. In other words, a
pregnant woman, especially one with a drinking problem, may THINK she’s drinking one drink but is actually drinking more.

For a final instance, what’s the big deal about not doing something for 9 months, especially when the potential for harm is so great?

Many of the blogs written in response to the research article talked about how scared we make women in America about being pregnant and they were full of testimonies (like mine) that “my mom drank and I’m OK.” But if we are going to err, let’s err on the side of safety.

I don’t want to scare anyone and I don’t want to oppress pregnant women with rules and regulations and do’s and dont’s that make them feel persecuted for being pregnant. But I have to say that I have known many women who have given birth to children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). While these are lovely and loved children, that condition can be devastating to the child and the whole family (not to mention the price tag to society). In addition, FASD is totally preventable.

Why shouldn’t we warn and encourage women to do everything they can to have the healthiest baby possible? A human life and preventable disabilities that last a lifetime are worth the conversation and the effort.