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

Leah Callahan, 27, who gave birth in October, started enjoying an occasional glass of wine—never more than four ounces—about six months into her pregnancy. / Photo by Jana Leon.

From the end of Prohibition, in the 1930s, until the early 1970s, moderate drinking while pregnant was both common and unquestioned. In 1973, however, a University of Washington study attributed physical, mental, and developmental birth defects—things like heart murmurs, small heads, and narrow eyes at birth, as well as delayed speech and poor hand-eye coordination later on—to fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS. It wasn’t long before follow-up studies showed that FAS was actually a very rare outcome related to severe alcoholism, with an estimate of 0.5 to 2 cases per 1,000. But FAS as a notion was transformative, mostly because birth defects as a result of alcohol were viewed as completely preventable, which made continuing to drink not just thoughtless but also reckless and cruel. According to a 1999 report published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, FAS was instrumental in turning excessive drinking in the public’s mind from a moral (and largely private) concern to a public-health concern on par with child neglect and abuse. In our collective consciousness, drinking while pregnant became widely associated with poverty, crime, and mental illness.

Around the time of the surgeon general’s 1981 call to abstinence, state and local governments began implementing point-of-purchase warnings about drinking during pregnancy, and in 1988, the United States became the first country to adopt legislation requiring similar warnings on the labels of beer and alcohol containers. A string of overwrought articles and movies—such as The Broken Cord, based on Michael Dorris’s bestselling 1989 book about the challenges and heartbreak of raising an adopted son who’d been born with FAS—helped fuel the idea that drinking while pregnant wasn’t just potentially dangerous but also immoral. In 1990 Wyoming became the first state to charge a drunk pregnant woman with felony child abuse.

So it’s not surprising that, according to the CDC, alcohol consumption among pregnant women declined throughout the ’80s. After that, though, the numbers began to rise. Some of the shift is doubtless attributable to the fact that researchers to this day cannot definitively say just how much alcohol, at what stage of pregnancy, causes FAS. And some of it probably owes to the fact that studies keep coming out indicating that a drink from time to time while pregnant is safe. Like the one published in June in the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology that found that up to eight drinks in a week—and as many as five at one time, which seems like an awful lot—did not have significant negative cognitive effect on kids five years later. This study followed an earlier one published in the International Journal of Epidemiology that indicated that not only could pregnant women safely drink a glass of wine or two per week, but that their children would actually perform better three years after birth than those of women who chose not to drink at all. And in Europe (of course), where the perception, at least, is that pregnant women regularly drink and smoke—though, in fact, the official position on drinking in France is abstinence throughout pregnancy—birth-defect rates are lower than those in the U.S.

The truth is, there’s no real proof that low levels of drinking are harmful to a fetus. “The quality of information is not so definitive that it is absolutely clear that drinking in small quantities is going to significantly affect pregnancy outcome,” says Robert Barbieri, the chairman of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. And, as we know, people like definites. It’s this very absence of actual scientific evidence that drinking is absolutely and without question bad for a baby that has led a lot of very smart, very informed pregnant women to decide that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional drink. Not that the rest of society necessarily agrees.

 

You don’t have to be a parent yourself to know that modern parenting can seem like a series of unending judgments, from how we conceive to what we eat and do while pregnant, with stops along the way including, but not limited to, birthing, breastfeeding, vaccinating, what our kids eat, where they sleep, how they learn, how much TV they watch, if we marry, or stay married to, the people who helped us conceive them, and if we have them at all.

At 36, and many years after declaring my mother unfit to drive me around in her exaggeratedly smoky car, I’m undecided about having children of my own. My uncertainty has nothing to do with other people’s decisions, and yet I sense that strangers and sometimes friends can feel a bit slighted when I can’t explain what it is about parenthood that doesn’t interest me. I do know my ambivalence is less about my opinion of children and more about knowing myself. I’m not sure I’m particularly well suited to sacrifice. Or to the pressures of parenting-by-comparison, which these days seems impossible to avoid. Having married a man with a child of his own, I believe I have a responsibility to be a thoughtful, caring parental figure and friend to my stepson, and supporter to my husband in his parenting choices. But I also know what it’s like to feel judged, and I’m not sure I want to sign up for more.

“As soon as you’re pregnant, or have a baby, it’s like all bets are off,” says Kara Baskin, a 33-year-old mother of a two-year-old boy. “People can say whatever they want, touch whatever they want, make whatever comments they want.” A few years back, she was at a Starbucks when the barista asked her, “Are you supposed to be having any caffeine when you’re pregnant?” She wasn’t pregnant—it was just the shirt—but of course that didn’t matter. She ran out crying.

Baskin, an Arlington-based writer, eventually did become pregnant. She recalls the time she was eight months in and “enormous,” and was meeting a friend for dinner at Lucky’s Lounge, in Fort Point. While she waited, she ordered a bottle of O’Doul’s, the nonalcoholic beer. Barely two sips in, she noticed the table full of twentysomething women whispering and sending dirty looks her way. Finally, the women signaled for a waitress, who then marched over “as if she were going to arrest me or something,” Baskin says. At the table, however, the waitress got close enough to see that it was a nonalcoholic beverage. “Oh, never mind,” she said to Baskin. “It’s okay. It’s O’Doul’s!” But what if it hadn’t been?

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  • 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.

  • http://twitter.com/billyboylston 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 autismspeaks.org

  • 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.