There were quite a few headlines making the rounds last week that light drinking during pregnancy “might be okay”. This was apparently based on a recent study.
There's just one problem – the study most definitely did not say this. Instead, it pointed out how little information we have on the effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
The paper, led by the University of Bristol in the UK, was published in the journal BMJ Open. Looking for data on the issue the researchers found just 24 studies. Although unable to make any full conclusions, the study noted that the effects of drinking a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy “is sparse”. This was apparently enough for some outlets to run with the headline that drinking whilst being pregnant is okay.
It's even more bizarre given that the literal next sentence of the study recommends not drinking as the best course of action.
“As there was some evidence that even light prenatal alcohol consumption is associated with being SGA [small for gestational age] and preterm delivery, guidance could advise abstention as a precautionary principle but should explain the paucity of evidence,” the authors wrote.
We already know that excessive drinking can be incredibly harmful to an unborn baby. As noted by Popular Science, the problem at the moment is that “we don’t know where the line is”. But we can’t exactly give pregnant mothers alcohol to find out, hence the lack of available data.
"This science paper was not meant for you – it was a call to researchers that this is something that needs further studying," added Gizmodo.
Abstention is obviously the safest route, but a lot of people do drink while pregnant. One study found that more than 10 percent of pregnant women in the US drink, with a third of those binge drinking (four drinks or more on one occasion). In the UK, the number is as high as 40 percent.
Finding out what effects drinking alcohol has on an unborn baby would be pretty useful so we can supply some solid data on the subject. The NHS in the UK said “the safest approach is not to drink at all while you’re expecting” as the jury is still out.
On issues like this, it’s probably best to trust medical advice, rather than tabloid newspapers. The effects of alcohol on an unborn baby may well be less than we thought, but they could just as well be worse, too. For the sake of a human that has no choice in the matter, it’s probably best to lay off the drink during pregnancy until we know more.