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Drinking alcohol while pregnant: Safe or risky?

Sarah Walker Caron is an award winning journalist, freelance writer and editor. She lives a happy life in Maine with her two children, where they love to hike, visit the beaches and have lots of silly fun. Check out her food blog at Sara...

Is it safe to drink any amount of alcohol while pregnant?

Is a glass of wine A-OK during pregnancy? A few sips of beer? A wine cooler at the game? We turned to experts to find out if alcohol is ever a good idea during pregnancy to get to the bottom of this.

Alcohol and pregnancy: Do they mix?

Pregnancy and alcohol is a hot topic. Researchers publish studies on this topic on the regular (a recent one out of the U.K., for example, didn't find a lot of evidence that light drinking is harmful to a fetus or its mother).

Despite these findings, experts across the board routinely stand steadfast against the practice, especially when studies can't show a definite link between two things — in the above case, drinking and lack of serious outcomes. Study authors also emphasize that this doesn't mean women should drink if they feel like it because studies are limited, self-reporting may not be accurate, and the literature and data they're looking into is relatively small.

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), alcohol is a teratogen, which means that it can and will harm a developing fetus. Prenatal alcohol exposure can result in growth deformities, facial abnormalities, central nervous system impairment, behavior disorders and impaired intellectual development. It can also result in a small birth weight and premature labor.

While those who drink heavily generally have the worst outcomes, the U.S. Surgeon General advises that pregnant women should completely abstain — zero alcohol. This is echoed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Additionally, the U.S. government mandates labeling of alcoholic beverages to indicate that consumption can result in birth defects. Expert groups and the government, then, feel that alcohol should be completely avoided during pregnancy.

Experts weigh in

We decided to talk with a few experts in the field to get their stance on the topic. Dr. Janet Choi, Director at the N.Y. outpost of The Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, says that the official answer to the question of, "Is it safe?" is "Definitely not." She explains that no amount of alcohol is safe to use in pregnancy, and notes that there have been studies that suggest that alcohol consumption a month or two before conception might affect a baby's skull or facial bone development. However, she goes on to say, "Nevertheless, is it OK to have a sip of wine at a party or dinner during pregnancy? Probably, but if you want to be truly safe, I'd advise against any alcohol during pregnancy (save it for the delivery room once the kid is out!)."

Joan McCraw, MSN, FNP, APRN, Clinical Specialist Psychiatry/Addictions at Solutions Recovery, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Las Vegas, agrees that no alcohol should pass the lips of a pregnant woman. "Anyone who is concerned about their baby developing properly is going to want them to be as healthy as possible and not introduce anything into their system that could cause damage," she says. "It’s unpredictable. When you have a chemical going through the body of a developing fetus, it could affect all kinds of organ systems: liver, pancreas, kidney, heart and brain."

Mom's decision

While it's truly up to the pregnant mom-to-be, drinking doesn't seem to be a huge hit with pregnant people. "I didn't drink after finding out whatsoever," said Leia, who is expecting her second baby. "Growing up with alcoholics and also having close family members with fetal alcohol syndrome made it easy to not drink. It's put me off completely because of what I've seen happens in severe cases involving alcohol."

The consensus among experts is that alcohol consumption during pregnancy isn't OK at all. It's best to err on the side of caution, because nobody can predict how every baby's development and every mom-to-be will react to alcohol. Nobody knows the exact threshold when some becomes "too much," so experts, overall, suggest abstaining completely.

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