Don't wet the baby's head

by Jennifer Bowden / 18 September, 2010
Exposure to even small amounts of alcohol in the womb can cause harm.

Question: A friend is pregnant with her second child and has decided to continue drinking alcohol socially, whereas during her first pregnancy she stopped drinking altogether. She says an occasional glass of wine won't harm the baby. But I thought even small quantities of alcohol could be harmful. Who is right?

Answer:

Does the thought of an unborn child sharing a glass of pinot noir send shivers down your spine? That's the reality when pregnant women drink alcohol - the alcohol readily crosses the placenta and enters the baby's blood circulation, resulting in fetal blood alcohol levels equivalent to maternal levels.

And although that glass of pinot might give mum a warm, relaxing glow, it's quite a different story for baby. Alcohol can affect the baby's neurological and behavioural development, as it interferes with various metabolic processes and the delivery of important nutrients to the baby.

Many people are aware that regular heavy alcohol consumption by pregnant women, or very high alcohol concentrations during critical periods of the fetus's development, can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children with FAS suffer from mental retardation and/or behavioural problems, restricted growth and distinctive facial features.

But it's important to realise that even small amounts of alcohol can have detrimental effects on the health and well-being of an unborn baby. The negative effects of even low levels of alcohol intake include: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); behavioural problems; learning difficulties; inability to learn from experiences and foresee consequences; poor impulse control, judgment and abstract thinking; and speech, language and communication problems.

Negative effects on behaviour have been observed in children exposed to just one standard drink a week during fetal development, and one to two standard drinks a day has been shown to affect cognitive development.

How alcohol consumption during fetal development affects an unborn baby depends on such variables as the timing of exposure, maternal and genetic factors affecting how the body metabolises alcohol, and individual susceptibility. But there is no known level of alcohol intake that is safe for an unborn child. Hence the Ministry of Health advises pregnant women, and women planning pregnancy, to avoid all alcohol altogether.

Yet just 68% of New Zealand women report receiving advice not to drink during pregnancy. So, it's hardly surprising that a 2009 study in the New Zealand Medical Journal found that 28% of New Zealand women continue to consume alcohol during pregnancy. About 10% of pregnant women consume more than two standard drinks in a typical day and more than seven drinks a week, and 9% of women report binge drinking during pregnancy; these figures are likely to be on the conservative side given the propensity to under-report alcohol consumption levels. Just 44% of New Zealand women think there's no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Sadly, we still don't have warning labels on alcohol bottles, and the Alcohol Advisory Council's 2006 application to Food Standards Australia New Zealand to add pregnancy warning labels to alcohol bottles was recently put on hold until 2011 to allow further reviews.

Each year about 3000 of the 60,000 babies born in New Zealand are affected by exposure to alcohol in the womb. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is like playing Russian roulette with a child's health. Complete abstinence at this time is the only solution - end of story.

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