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How Much Alcohol is Safe During Pregnancy?

No alcohol use during pregnancy

If you’re pregnant and the waiter asks, “Can I get you a cocktail?” the healthy response is “no.” Results of a new study exploring fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) support previous findings that the answer to the question “How much alcohol is safe during pregnancy?” is zero.

Pregnancy and alcohol should not mix

A research team from the University of California, San Diego, set out to determine the relationships between various physical features of fetal alcohol syndrome and specific information about alcohol use was analyzed based on consumption patterns.

The patterns of drinking were evaluated in terms of number of drinks per day, number of binge drinking episodes, and maximum number of drinks. Precisely when women consumed alcohol was broken down into time periods: zero to six weeks after conception, six to 12 weeks after conception, and during the first, second, and third trimesters.

All of these factors were then analyzed according to the magnitude of risk for several selected physical fetal alcohol syndrome features. Those features included the following:

  • Smooth philtrum: no groove between the upper lip and nose
  • Thin vermillion border: thin upper lip
  • Short palpebral fissures: abnormally small-set eyes
  • Microcephaly: abnormally small head circumference
  • Height and weight deficiencies: children who are shorter and weigh less than the average for their age

Data from 992 women and their single infants were collected between 1978 and 2005 and evaluated in each of the categories mentioned. To help ensure the researchers got accurate information about the women’s alcohol habits, the data were gathered from the pregnant women “by trained counseling specialists who had built a rapport with the woman and guaranteed confidentiality while collecting sensitive information,” according to the study’s lead author, Haruna Sawada Feldman, a post-doctoral student in the UCSD pediatrics department.

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Among the main findings were the following:

  • Higher prenatal alcohol use in every drinking pattern was significantly linked to all of the features except abnormally small-set eyes
  • The most significant association between alcohol use and FAS features was seen early in the pregnancy: during the second half of the first trimester
  • Throughout pregnancy, for every increase of one alcoholic drink in average daily consumption, there was an associated increased risk for each of the FAS features: 25% for smooth philtrum, 22% for thin upper lip, 18% for reduced birth length, 16% for reduced birth weight, and 12% for an abnormally small head

It is unclear how many people are affected by fetal alcohol syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 0.2 to 1.5 cases for every 1,000 live births have been reported in the United States, although other studies estimate the rate to be 0.5 to 2.0 cases per 1,000 live births.

In addition to the features of FAS explored in this study, children often have other features that can seriously affect their quality of life, such as learning disabilities, poor coordination, poor memory, speech and language delays, low IQ, poor reasoning skills, vision or hearing problems, hyperactivity, and problems with their kidneys, heart, or bones, according to the CDC. A link between fetal alcohol syndrome and epilepsy also has been uncovered.

How much alcohol is safe during pregnancy? According to the authors of this latest study, “Women should continue to be advised to abstain from alcohol consumption from conception throughout pregnancy.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Feldman SH, Lyons Jones K, Lindsay S, Slymen D, Klonoff-Cohen H, Kao K, Rao S, Chambers C. Prenatal alcohol exposure patterns and alcohol-related birth defects and growth deficiencies: a prospective study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 2012. Doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01664.x

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