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?

Quinn says her drinking was ob-gyn-sanctioned in what she calls a “wink-wink” sort of way. “There are so many things you can’t do when you’re pregnant,” she says. “You stress yourself out about everything. Did I get enough water? Did I eat enough vegetables? The wine was just a nice way to put your feet up and not have to worry about that.”

Leah Callahan, who is 27 and lives in Worcester, gave birth to her first child, a boy, in October. She started having an occasional glass of wine (never more than four ounces, she says) at about six months. Though she didn’t discuss drinking with her doctor, she aimed to be healthy throughout. She ate right, exercised, and gained fewer than 20 pounds. Her blood work was normal. “I don’t feel like having a glass of wine made me a bad person, or a bad soon-to-be mom,” she says. “It helps me relax, and we all know pregnancy can be stressful.”


That’s something Laura Riley, the director of labor and delivery at Mass General, hears from a lot of patients. Being pregnant certainly is stressful, says Riley, the author of You & Your Baby: Pregnancy, but “I’m not too sure relying on alcohol to relax you is a reasonable way to live. The question is, Why don’t you have different coping skills? Because you’re going to need them once you have a baby.”

Riley is unwavering in her position of zero tolerance. “While I recognize that there are random studies suggesting that small amounts of alcohol in some women are probably safe, I feel that nine months is a relatively short period of time” to give up drinking, she says. “It’s clear that alcohol in some levels can cause babies to have fetal alcohol syndrome, which is characterized by gross restriction and facial abnormalities and mental retardation. The fact that you’re not buzzed doesn’t mean that your baby’s not getting the end result.” To the women she sees who point to themselves or their friends as products of mothers who drank their way through their 1970s pregnancies, Riley’s response is, “I say you were lucky.”

It’s true that there are no studies that prove a glass of wine “here and there” is harmful, but it’s also true that there’s no real way to define “moderate” drinking. Anyone who has that friend who gets embarrassing after a single glass of pinot noir, or who is that friend, knows that alcohol affects everyone differently. “What level is safe for Mrs. Jones and what level is safe for you may be entirely different,” Riley says.

Whatever the research may be telling us, not a single Boston-area doctor I spoke with would go on record saying that drinking any amount of alcohol during pregnancy is acceptable. And yet there is the sense that many of them are quietly telling their patients that an occasional beer or glass of wine is fine. Nearly all the women interviewed for this story said they got at least a tacit okay from their doctor before starting to drink. One factor that might give doctors pause about publicly endorsing drinking while pregnant is that women—pregnant or not—traditionally underreport how much they drink by four times the amount men do. That can make it far more difficult for doctors, or patients, to identify the kind of problem drinking that everyone seems to agree can lead to trouble for babies. Put another way, what good is it to tell a pregnant patient that it’s okay to drink in moderation if that patient has no real conception of what moderation looks like? Even “women who are not diagnosed with any substance abuse disorder may not recognize how much is too much,” says Kelley Saia, assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at BU’s School of Medicine. “And because alcohol is so widely available, we have to be careful what we say.” Even one glass a few times a week, she says, counts as chronic exposure.

“Parents are constantly in an uproar about the fact that there’s more ADD, there’s more this, there’s more that,” Riley says. “I just don’t understand, if you’re concerned with all these different things that are all neurodevelopmental, why on earth would you take a chance with something that you know is a neurotoxin? People worry about eating fish, for God’s sake. They’re worried about mercury poisoning when, really, what’s the likelihood of that compared to all the beneficial things you can get from fish? I just find drinking a very odd thing for people to latch on to.”

Northborough mother Marile Borden, founder and editor of Momicillin Publishing, whose blogs include the wildly popular Moms Who Need Wine, sums it up this way: “I didn’t want to have a reason to blame myself should, God forbid, anything have gone wrong with my pregnancy or baby. Not that I thought a drink here or there would harm the baby. But I never wanted to have to say, Was it something I did?”



  • 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.