Is It Okay to Drink Moderate Amounts of Alcohol While Pregnant?

A new study suggests the occasional tipple during pregnancy might not be as bad as you think—but others disagree.

A CDC-funded study suggests that children whose mothers drank light to moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy showed no signs of mental problems by age 5. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Martin Cathrae.

What would you do if you were dining with a pregnant friend and she ordered a glass of wine with dinner? You might react with horror, since collective wisdom tells us that consuming even a little alcohol while pregnant is dangerous for both mother and baby. But according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in eight women report consuming alcohol while pregnant. Could light drinking during pregnancy turn out to be not as bad as it’s cracked up to be?

A new study out of Denmark funded by the CDC that followed 1,628 women and their offspring beginning at pregnancy indicates that children whose mothers indulged in light to moderate alcohol consumption in early to mid-pregnancy showed no signs of mental problems by age five. Light consumption is defined as one to five drinks per week, while moderate consumption is five to eight drinks per week. The most surprising result of the study? Even women who occasionally binged on alcohol—that is, had five or more drinks on a single occasion—gave birth to children who were normal in terms of intelligence, attention, and cognitive abilities at age five.

The study suggests that heavy drinking throughout pregnancy, however, did impact children’s cognitive development. Out of the entire group of women studied, 20 of them reported drinking more than eight drinks per week during pregnancy; these women’s children showed an increased incidence of attention and cognitive disabilities. These results remain unclear, though, since the sample size of heavy drinkers within the study was so small.

Given the study’s limitations, including the statistically small number of heavier-drinking mothers, its authors caution that the findings should not be taken as proof that light drinking during pregnancy is safe, noting that “the most conservative advice [is] for women to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy.” Overall, there is still no consensus about what a “safe” level of alcohol during pregnancy might be, and many doctors caution that women should stay away from alcohol altogether while expecting.

Some doctors and abuse specialists worry that this study will encourage those with alcoholism to justify dangerous drinking behavior during pregnancy, and emphasize that there are still risks—including an increased risk of miscarriage and fetal alcohol syndrome—associated with drinking during pregnancy. Bruce Goldman, director of substance abuse services at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, released a statement warning that “[t]hose suffering from alcoholism may attempt to rationalize that it is safe to drink moderately, something they may ultimately be unable to do.”

Goldman stressed that the US Surgeon General advises against drinking during pregnancy because of the increased risks of so-called “fetal alcohol spectrum disorders,” including fetal alcohol syndrome and other birth defects. Despite the results from the study, the CDC has not changed its stance and strongly urges pregnant women to abstain from alcohol throughout the entire pregnancy.

So before popping open the Champagne while pregnant, consult your doctor for his or her recommendations. The safest course of action for mother and baby may be to stick with conventional wisdom and avoid alcohol after all.

The full study was published in BJOG, an international journal of obstetrics and gynecology.