When I was pregnant with each of my three children, I did not drink any alcohol during my first trimester. The first twelve weeks of the baby’s development were the most crucial I learned, and I wasn’t going to jeopardize that. But my doctor told me it was okay to drink a small amount of wine thereafter, so I gingerly sipped an occasional glass of wine without worry. I know that many people refuse to take even a sip of alcohol during those nine long months. But that wasn’t me. And it wasn’t one of the essayists in our forthcoming anthology, Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (Seal Press, Sept 2012), who wrote how her British obstetrician recognized the all-or-nothing American attitude and was quite comfortable with her patients drinking every once in a while.
Now, the pregnant women of the world who’d like to have a guilt-free, occasional glass of wine can perhaps do so (emphasis on perhaps). The results of a series of research studies from Denmark, published in the BJOG Journal, suggest that “low to moderate weekly drinking in early pregnancy had no significant effect on neurodevelopment of children up to five years, nor did binge drinking.”
The study focused on children’s intelligence and found no differences in test performance between the children whose mothers consumed up to 8 drinks a week during pregnancy, compared to children whose mothers did not drink any alcohol. There was, however, one result that surfaced associating a lower attention span in five year old children whose mother drank more than 9 drinks per week. These children were also found to be at a risk nearly five times higher of having a low IQ compared to children of nondrinkers.
The research was drawn from 1,628 Danish women and their children–almost a third of all Danish women who were pregnant during the span of years from 1997 to 2003. The average age of the women was 31; fifty percent were first-time mothers; 12 percent were single; and 31 percent said they smoked during their pregnancy. In all of the studies, the researchers controlled for a variety of factors that may potentially affect a child’s brain development, such as maternal intelligence and smoking.
An important point to note–and highlighted in the journal article–is that a drink in these studies is defined by the the Danish National Board of Health and is equal to 12 grams of pure alcohol. The amount of alcohol in a drink can vary greatly from country to country, however, and in the United States there are 14 grams of pure alcohol in a standard drink. This is the equivalent of a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5 ounce shot of hard liquor, according to Rethinking Drinking, a website covering alcohol and health.
In a statement, the study’s authors said, “Our findings show that low to moderate drinking is not associated with adverse effects on the children aged 5. However, despite these findings, additional large scale studies should be undertaken to further investigate the possible effects.”
Though some women may feel relieved to learn about the latest study results, it is unlikely the new information will quell the controversy surrounding drinking during pregnancy, as many doctors continue to warn against potential disorders that the study may not have considered. “I would still caution women about drinking during their pregnancies,” Dr. Jennifer Wu, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay. “There may be subtle neurobehavioral changes that were not picked up in the study.”
“Although it’s still best for pregnant women to avoid alcohol, these results suggest that small amounts may not be a serious concern,” said HealthDay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still urge women not to drink at any time while pregnant, says Dr. Jacquelyn Betrand, who represents the CDC and served as co-author of three of the studies: “This study doesn’t change our recommendation.”