This week's study on alcohol in pregnancy got spun both ways: Light drinking is totally safe according to some some news stories, a definite no-no in others. Sorry, but this one's a buzzkill.
How 'bout some apple juice?
The Headline: Reminder: It's OK to Drink (a Little) During Pregnancy (Refinery29)
The Story: It is not suddenly OK to drink a little during pregnancy, even if Refinery29 told you so, and it really pains me to say it. Alcohol is nice to drink. I spent the last month of my last pregnancy researching the season's best pumpkin beers and brewing my own infused liquors to drink as soon as the baby was out. Sadly, this new study does not give pregnant people the go-ahead to crack open some of those beers early.
Here's the deal. Even before this study, we knew that alcohol can cause problems in a developing baby. The effects include mental and behavioural disabilities, and malformations of major organ systems.
There's a good idea buried in the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention's recent bungled message about alcohol and pregnancy. Women are typically pregnant for at least a few weeks before they know it. So if you're trying to get pregnant, you may want to start thinking about your alcohol intake now.
A lot of alcohol causes severe problems, and as you look at smaller and smaller amounts of alcohol, you see fewer and less severe effects. That makes sense. So naturally we hope that there's a lower limit where you won't do any damage. One drink a day is too much, but maybe one a week? One during the whole pregnancy?
The problem is we don't have enough data to tell which of two scenarios applies:
- Maybe light drinking is harmless for babies.
- Maybe light drinking harms them a little, but we haven't done studies that are sensitive enough to find those effects.
After all, when you look at your kid who "turned out fine" after you had a few drinks, you can't know if the kid would have been a little smarter or a little healthier if you had abstained. Even in large studies, we just don't have conclusive evidence either way. And very few studies have followed alcohol-exposed kids until school age, so even the evidence we have doesn't tell the full story.
So where does this new study fit in? Essentially, it confirms that the gap between zero and the definitely-bad-for-you levels of drinking is very small, if it exists at all. The authors reviewed 24 studies and found that babies were more likely to be born prematurely, or to be born small for gestational age, if mothers had more than 32g of alcohol per week. That's a smidge more than two glasses of wine. Per week.
The authors conclude that pregnant people shouldn't drink more than 32g per week, and that we don't know the harms, if any, of drinking less than that.
The Takeaway: This study did not expand the level of "safe" drinking. We now know that the two-drink-a-week level is probably harmful, and anything less than that is still a gamble. Zero is still your best bet. (Again, sorry.)