According to the CDC, one in ten pregnant women between the ages of 18 and 44 admit that they consumed alcohol during their pregnancy. In other countries around the world figures are even higher. It’s estimated that between 40% and 80% of women consume alcohol during pregnancy in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is considered by the CDC to be one of the most common causes of intellectual disability, and many health organisations recommend that pregnancy women avoid alcohol altogether. Despite there being limited research on how much is safe to drink during pregnancy; the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that abstinence is the safest option.
Although research has suggested that light drinking might not be harmful, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has warned that 1 in 20 children in America are now somewhere on the spectrum of fetal alcohol disorders. These disorders can cause abnormal growth as well as intellectual and behavioural problems.
“We have long thought and believed that estimates that we had previously in the US were pretty gross underestimates,” said Christina Chambers, one of the study’s authors and a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. “It’s not an easy disorder to recognize.” The authors noted that previous estimates were that 1 in 100 children were affected by the disorder.
As part of the study, a team of researchers were sent into both private and public school in four different communities in the US. Students at the schools were assessed for behavioural and growth problems and their mothers were interviewed about their alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The results were then analysed to determine the link between the two.
However, this study has had some criticism from experts, including Susan Astley, director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnostic and Prevention Network at the University of Washington. “I don’t have a very high regard for the numbers,” she said, adding that:”Screening for (fetal alcohol spectrum disorders) isn’t like screening for scoliosis. It’s difficult to … just start asking moms and dads about their drinking. It’s absolutely clear we need accurate estimates of this. In my opinion, we don’t currently have that.”
The majority of experts agree that further research needs to be carried out on the effects of alcohol during pregnancy. The official advice from the CDC is that pregnant women should avoid alcohol, as well as women who are not on birth control. “About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and even if planned, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month or so, when they might still be drinking,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, current acting director of the CDC.