Opinion: Any alcohol during pregnancy is a risk

By Chris Lindley

Most pregnant women across the United States listen to and rely on sound medical advice from their doctors and other health experts when determining how to protect the health of their unborn babies. Dont drink during pregnancy is a message based on evidence that resonates with most expectant mothers and contributes to the health of future generations.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment would like to reinforce that message with a critique of a recent study that suggests moderate drinking during pregnancy is not harmful to young children.

On June 20, a Danish research article titled, The Effects of Low to Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Binge Drinking in Early Pregnancy on Executive Function in 5-year-old Children, written by Skogerbo, et.al., was published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The study drew media attention after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services posted a news itemon its website titled, Moderate Drinking During Pregnancy Has No Effect on Young Children. These findings and the accompanying media coverage sent a confusing and potentially dangerous message to pregnant women.

Before that message permeates society and risks the health of young children, the following limitations to this recent study should be considered:

  • Study investigators themselves caution that the findings should not be taken as proof that light drinking during pregnancy is safe or that a safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy exists.
  • Small sample sizes of moderate and heavy drinkers were not statistically sufficient.
  • Half (51 percent) of the children born to mothers participating in the study were tested for cognitive and developmental deficits. Researchers acknowledge that mothers of children not functioning at age level might have been more likely to decline participation in deficit testing.
  • The study relied on self-reporting of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Research shows that self-reporting of alcohol consumption frequency and quantity is often underestimated.
  • The Kesmodel study clearly states that deficits related to fetal alcohol exposure may emerge after age 5 years.

Years of research and numerous epidemiological and clinical studies show harmful effects to a growing embryo from alcohol exposure. These effects may be present immediately after birth, at infancy or later in life, especially if the damage involves the central nervous system.

Studies show that there is a 6-to-10 percent chance that a fetus exposed to very high repetitive doses of alcohol will develop prenatal and postnatal growth deficiency, specific craniofacial dysmorphic features, mental retardation, behavioral changes and a variety of major anomalies. With lower repetitive doses there is risk of slight intellectual impairment, growth disturbances and behavioral changes. Prenatal exposure to alcohol also is associated with higher levels of conduct disorder symptoms in offspring.

Colorado women may not review or critique studies when deciding whether to drink during pregnancy. Instead, they rely on what they hear from their families, friends and doctors, and what they read, hear or see in the media to guide their decisions. Most would agree that excessive drinking is bad for their babies, but may not know if an occasional glass of wine crosses the line.

Studies like these blur that line and cause women to question their conscience.

The U.S. Surgeon General, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other health experts advise abstinence for pregnant mothers who want to protect their children from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Until research conclusively contradicts that good advice, CDPHE will continue to clearly communicate to Colorado women that alcohol and motherhood do not mix.

Chris Lindley is director of the prevention services division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.