NOFAS Responds to ‘Light Drinking’ Research

Research published last week in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology affirms that, “…the safest option for pregnant women is to avoid drinking [alcohol] during pregnancies.” Although, if you read the headlines or the research sponsor’s news release you wouldn’t find that statement anywhere.

The research examined, “Whether light drinking in pregnancy is linked to unfavourable developmental outcomes in children,” and concluded, “While children born to light drinkers appeared to have more favourable developmental profiles compared to those born to mothers who did not drink during pregnancy, after statistical adjustment these differences largely disappeared.”

The research was supported by University College, London and is the latest effort, in part, to create an evidence-base to support the “light” consumption of alcohol during pregnancy and influence public opinion on the subject. NOFAS understands that because alcohol consumption is an important lifestyle choice for many women in the United Kingdom and Western Europe (and the United States) some condone light drinking during pregnancy.

However, alcohol is a confirmed teratogen or substance capable of interfering with healthy development of the embryo or fetus. Like other teratogens such as carbon monoxide, lead, mercury, and sodium cyanide, alcohol may cause birth defects and developmental disabilities.

In general, the risk of harm to the fetus associated with exposure to alcohol corresponds to the amount, pattern, and type of alcohol consumed, although there are other not clearly understood factors such as genetic predisposition and the nutritional and general health status of the mother.

Fortunately, not all women who consume alcohol during pregnancy have offspring with birth defects. Because of genetic differences some fetuses are more susceptible to brain damage and other consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure. Many animal studies show that occasional exposure to alcohol can harm a genetically susceptible mouse brain (the paper published in BJOG ignores the body of research linking light drinking to developmental delays, increased risk of stillbirth, growth deficiency, and other birth defects). The human genetic predisposition that either increases the risk or provides protective resistance is unknown. Because any human fetus is potentially vulnerable, the only safe recommendation is to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy.

The paper acknowledges that, “There may be ‘sleeper’ effects, whereby developmental problems associated with mothers’ drinking in pregnancy merge later in childhood.” Indeed, as FASD and alcohol and pregnancy experts, Susan Astley Ph.D. and Therese Grant Ph.D. have written, “Over 30 years of research on fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) confirms that alcohol has its greatest impact on complex brain functions. This is why children exposed to and damaged by prenatal alcohol exposure look deceptively good in the preschool years. The full impact of their alcohol exposure will not be evident until their adolescent years.”

Perhaps the most interested effect of the research is the media interpretation and reporting of its conclusions. This one from the Daily Mirror, “Mothers-to-be ‘can safely enjoy two drinks a week without harming their baby’ (and their child may be better behaved than if they abstained),” and many others, make claims that the research does not. In a separate article, NOFAS will examine the often exaggerated and outright inaccurate headlines reporting on the publication of the research.

Some are eager to identify a “threshold” of safe alcohol use during pregnancy. For what purpose? Certainly not for the sake of the unborn child, who ultimately bears the risk. While the risk may be reduced with “light drinking,” it can only be eliminated entirely by abstaining completely from alcohol.

The bottom line remains that while the risk of harm is dependent on many factors, a toxic substance is always a toxic substance. From a common sense standpoint, why take any risk, especially an unnecessary one.