Pregnant Pause?

Striking numbers of expectant mothers—professional, educated, and informed—are deciding that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional drink of alcohol. New studies suggest that they may be right, but the medical establishment is hardly convinced. So are these moms-to-be valiantly pushing back against political correctness gone awry, or are they simply part of a new generation of entitled narcissists, unwilling to sacrifice even for the health of their babies?

drink alcohol while pregnant

Photos by Jana Leon

For most of my life, I believed that my mother, who smoked until I was in my teens, had at least quit during the months she was pregnant with me, her only child. It wasn’t until recently that I found out this wasn’t the case. She’d never actually stopped, so maybe I could’ve been taller, after all. Back then, though, it was fairly standard to drink and smoke and eat cold cuts while carrying a baby: A good friend born the same year I was reports that her mom got stoned the night before giving birth. My aunt, meanwhile, remembers being pregnant with my cousin in the early ’80s and having her Boston obstetrician advise that she cut back on cigarettes—to half a pack a day.

My mom had issued the lie in part, I assume, because by the time I was old enough to ask, smoking was no longer a recommended practice among the gestational, and because I was a kid who tended to like to assign blame. By 1984 the surgeon general had mandated labels on all cigarette packages warning women that smoking could cause fetal injury, low birth weight, and premature birth. This was not long after the surgeon general’s official position for pregnant women became to abstain from drinking and smoking completely, following a study that identified a group of physical and mental birth defects now known as fetal alcohol syndrome. As it was, I had been crediting my poor showing on the Presidential Fitness one-mile run to a childhood spent in the confines of my mom’s Nissan Maxima, hotboxing our way through afternoon errands. Armed with the information that she’d also smoked throughout what were literally my most formative months, I’m sure I would have been a sanctimonious nightmare. Eventually, I badgered her into quitting when I was 15. I told myself, and her, that if I was to become a mom one day, I would neither smoke nor drink.

Many people were soon taking an equally rigid position. After the surgeon general issued the new guidelines, the United States experienced a massive societal shift away from smoking and drinking by pregnant women. So complete was the transformation that by 2005, the surgeon general was advising women who were simply trying to get pregnant to also quit drinking entirely, just to be safe. But in more recent years, the mood, and the rhetoric, around drinking during pregnancy have begun to shift yet again. Lately, we’ve seen the publication of study after study showing that, rather than dooming the unborn to a lifetime of birth defects and personality problems, the occasional drink or three may actually be free of negative consequences. One recent finding even suggested that as many as eight drinks in one week, and up to five in one sitting, may have no significant effects.

And so lots of educated, informed, and professional women are giving themselves license to drink. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.6 percent of pregnant women drink at least occasionally. Among college-educated women, however, that number jumps to 10 percent, and of those between the ages of 35 and 44, 14 percent consume alcohol. These days, spotting your pregnant-with-twins lawyer neighbor having a glass of wine with dinner isn’t quite as shocking as it once was.

The moms-to-be who are choosing to drink aren’t thoughtless or careless women given to making blind decisions. They’re part of one of the most informed generations of mothers in history, middle- and upper-class professionals in their late twenties, thirties, and forties. They read all the books about having healthy babies. They eat organic food and work out in fancy gyms. They travel the world, always seeming to bump into pregnant women around Europe who smoke and drink and pop out beautiful, brilliant children.

And yet, their decision to drink while expecting puts them in the middle of what may be the greatest divide among the pregnant and those who come in contact with them—which, of course, is all of us. That’s because pregnant or not, woman or man, everyone, it seems, has an opinion about everyone else’s drinking habits, especially if the everyone else in question is carrying a child. I’ve seen friends at both ends of the spectrum—from the one who sat at home for the first six months of her pregnancy for fear of doing anything that could possibly harm her baby to the one who took a far more “European” approach. (If pregnant ladies in Europe are, in fact, doing Jäger shots.) I’m also hearing them judge one another and the comparative health of their babies—out of earshot, of course. And I have to wonder: Is there such a thing as “drinking safely” while pregnant? And who has the right to say? Are we basing decisions about drinking while pregnant on science? Or something else?



  • Luke B.

    I work at Luckys Lounge and we don’t serve O’Douls and haven’t in the 3 years I’ve worked here…just sayin’.

  • Kris

    Hmmm. I think a sniff of cocaine would relax me once in a while when I’m pregnant. It would remind me of my fun, carefree days. I’m sure just one snort a couple of times during my pregnancy would be perfectly safe.

    Try inserting “cocaine” instead of alcohol and lets see if we feel the same way. Alcohol is more dangerous to the development of the baby than cocaine.

  • Jane

    Honestly, I don’t care how educated these women are. Drinking while pregnant is wrong. Would you put alcohol in a baby’s bottle? Of course not! So why the heck would you drink while pregnant?! If you can’t refrain from a little booze for 9 months to reduce the risk of birth defects in your unborn child, you are truly selfish and don’t deserve to be a mother. You’re not even supposed to eat cold cuts or drink caffeine while pregnant for goodness’ sake, so why would it be OK to drink alcohol? Just goes to show how selfish this society has gotten. It’s all about ‘me, me, me’ these days. Notice how many women in this article who drank during their pregnancy are justifying it by saying that they do it to relieve stress brought on by pregnancy? Are you kidding me? Isn’t that what alcoholics do when they’re stressed out instead of dealing with it? They drink! How do you think other women have dealt with the stress of pregnancy over the years and haven’t drank? Give me a break. Why even risk the chance that it could harm your unborn child? It amazes me that in this society women get more crap for not breastfeeding their baby than drinking while pregnant. It’s despicable.

    • Jess

      Actually, it’s perfectly acceptable to have 200 mg or less of caffeine a day.

  • Heather

    This article is about more than just drinking during pregnancy. It’s about how society constantly and incessantly judges mothers. And how that really needs to stop.

  • Karen

    Well, Heather should we also not judge women who use heroin while pregnant? Don’t be ridiculous. You SHOULD be judged for putting your unborn child’s health at risk. It’s wrong, plain and simple, not to mention selfish.

  • Virginia Bourget

    I am very sad to read this article and I am sure the writer did not mean harm. I have to point out, however, that alcohol is a known teratogen. That means that it damages developing fetuses, just like Thalidomide. It is more harmful that cocaine to developing babies and this is true accross all species that have been studied. A few studies have suggested otherwise, as compared to 100s or more that have clearly demonstrated that alcohol affected newborns suffer neurological and other health consequences that are lifelong. How could someone decide to take a chance on that? More importantly, why would they? Alcohol is not a required part of the diet.

  • Patrick

    This article is incredibly irresponsible. The writer mentions that “lately we’ve seen study after study” suggest drinking up to 5 drinks might not hurt your infant? No citation, no reference, no facts. The editorial staff and writer should stick to reflecting on their mother in a fluff piece rather that putting infants at risk.

  • Billy Boylston

    Dr. Riley who was on Nightside with Dan Rea is so right to affirm no drinking or smoking during pregnacy. This should be just common sense knowing what we know about these 2 legal/taxed possibilities and the righ of the unborn should exceed the desires of the mother (in all ways!) I do want to correct a couple of callers to the radio show that there is not absolute confirmed data on alcohol use leading to intelligence an challenged child and especially not a connection to autism and aspergers. Nightside, even in a previous program posting casually links ASD with mental illness. Asperger’s and Autism are dev neuro disorders and NOT mental illness. Prospective parents, please watch your new child the first 2 years for symptoms of potential autism. More info? Visit

  • JS

    It is interesting. In Britain, midwives and doctors often prescribe guinnas during pregnancy (a dark stout). The rates of defects etc are the same or better as the US.

    When you are looking at studies they must be carried out in a way that truly demonstrates a definitive answer. In the medical community that means a double blind study after several preliminary studies. Any of the studies dealing with alcohol are not these- they are only antedotal. There are a lot of faults with this. (It is like chemo – not target therapies of late but traditional chemo- has never been tested in a double blind study. It has all been “antedotal” and/compared to people on radiation and such. If you are looking at data, only non-Hodgeson [sp] Lymphoma has shown a true response and “cure” using chemo. The result from chemo may show a short term reduction in cancer growth but it never cures and it always destroys the body. My point is that in our society we don’t question our doctors and we jump on the band wagon that says, in this case, don’t drink alcohol AT ALL while pregnant.

    However, despite that warning, sugar is consumed (a drug we are addicted and it has harmful effects) , we eat GMO and pesticide laden food, we drink water that has a huge amount of toxins in it (despite tap OR bottle). We drink milk that is full of hormones and let’s not talk about BPA found in plastics and canned goods.

    I work with students who possess various challenges (please-only medical community can say retardation. Respect that everyone is a person first.). Those who possess FAS or other birth defects, come from mothers who had real problems-binge drinking and drugs. I also work with others who have birth defects that are genetic and rare and are not caused because the woman drank a glass of wine or two over her pregnancy.

    In the US especially, there is an all-or-nothing mentality. I believe self control in American society is lacking. Think about Big Gulps. Who needs one- no one. If doctors publically said pregnant women can have 2 glasses of wine or beer a week- women may take that as they can have two large bottles of beer or two huge glasses of wine. Better yet, they may save it up for an upcoming party… Leading to binge drinking.

    I do not endorse alcohol during pregnancy. That is not what I am saying. It comes down to knowledge and understanding the issue. Many of the responses demonstrate that there is very little willingness to look at all sides and really understand the issue. Many of you took it as if she was stating that alcohol was okay-she didn’t. Rather, she presented what limited facts were out there along with antedotes that show both sides of thinking. She is simply getting others to think about the issue.