Alcohol during pregnancy - women don’t need to worry

Pregnant woman drinking wine

New study fails to find strong evidence that a drink or two per week will harm your unborn baby, while others say making alcohol a no-no during pregnancy causes needless anxiety to women.

Can you drink alcohol during pregnancy?

There is little evidence to suggest that light drinking during pregnancy increases your chances of having a small or premature baby, according to a new study.

Scientists at the University of Bristol examined all the research done on the subject since the 1950s. They looked at miscarriage, still birth, size at birth, and long term developmental delays, behavioural and cognitive deficits, and failed to conclude that light drinking in pregnancy was a significant factor.

Women are routinely told that alcohol is a complete no-no during pregnancy and that even light alcohol consumption can cause stunted growth, learning and behavioural difficulties. But Dr Luisa Zuccolo who co-led the University of Bristol study admitted: “Formulating advice on the basis of the current evidence is challenging because we are still building the full picture of what happens to the unborn baby when small amounts of alcohol reach the bloodstream or brain.”

In 2016, the UK Chief Medical Officers altered guidelines on drinking in pregnancy to advise pregnant women to avoid alcohol altogether. This was not as a result of changes in the evidence base, but in part because there were concerns that the previous guidance was being interpreted as a recommendation to drink alcohol at low levels.

But the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said at the time that telling women that small quantities of alcohol in pregnancy can harm your baby has no basis in evidence. They warned that the strict no-alcohol advice has done more harm than good by causing mothers-to-be unnecessary anxiety.

In light of the new research, Mumsnet CEO Justine Roberts said: “Pregnant women are bombarded with health information; unfortunately the need for a clear, easily-communicated message sometimes conflicts with the unavoidable fact that medical insight is ever-evolving.

“Unlike the no-smoking message – which seems to be universally believed, if not always adhered to – pregnant women have remained a little sceptical about the zero-alcohol advice, and judging from the Mumsnet forums tend to be pretty realistic about the probable impacts of the odd drink and see no point in dwelling on the amounts they drank before even knowing they were pregnant.”

How much alcohol is OK during pregnancy?

For the study, the team at the University of Bristol defined small amounts as one to two UK units of alcohol, once or twice a week – the recommended maximum level given in the Department of Health’s previous guidance. Two units of alcohol is equivalent to one pint of strong beer or a medium size glass (175ml) of light white wine.

I've been drinking and I've just found out I'm pregnant, have I harmed my baby?

Consistent heavy drinking can result in foetal alcohol syndrome – nobody denies that – but isolated episodes of binge-drinking have no robust evidence of causing long-term damage. This means that if you were on the gin one night and found out you were six weeks along the day after (as many of us have done) you are unlikely to have caused your baby harm.

Many women avoid all alcohol in the first trimester, but feel happy enjoying the occasional glass after that. Drinking to excess during pregnancy is potentially dangerous because the alcohol crosses the placenta and your baby's developing liver can't process it as fast as your body can.