Should Women Drink Alcohol While Pregnant?

Striking numbers of expectant mothers 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.

drink alcohol while pregnant

Photo by Jana Leon

Women’s bodies—and not just the pregnant ones—are still somehow seen as public property. This summer, all 49 Massachusetts birth facilities banned free baby-formula gift bags in order to encourage new moms to breastfeed. We’re the second state to do so (Rhode Island was the first). Okay, so we want to encourage breastfeeding, right? Then what to make of the uproar over the recent Time magazine cover featuring the breastfeeding mom who, in the court of public opinion, had “gone too far”? No matter what she does, there will always be someone telling a mother she’s doing it wrong.

“We reason that it’s because the state has a vested interested in producing healthy babies, but it’s really about the sexist idea that women don’t know what’s best for them,” says Jessica Valenti, the founder of the blog Feministing, author of Why Have Kids?, and a Jamaica Plain mom. “Motherhood is a lifetime of judgment, unless you’re willing to do anything by someone else’s standards. And there’s always going to be someone else.”

Confident that what the data actually show is that there’s nothing wrong with a drink from time to time, this new generation of mothers is determined to make its own choices about drinking while pregnant. “I had a sip of my partner’s scotch here and there because I really like it,” says Jess Meyer, 35, a yoga instructor with two kids younger than three who drank a glass or two of wine four times a week while pregnant. “My doctor was a mother of three herself and she was like, ‘Honestly, a little wine here or there is not bad.’ Especially with the second one, when you’re dealing with a crazy toddler, too. The way I see it, if you’re sitting there with a bottle of vodka sucking it down: That’s a problem. But a few glasses of wine—there’s nothing wrong with that.” She mentions the International Journal of Epidemiology study that found that prenatal drinking actually led to better-behaved kids, saying, “People are always complimenting me on my relaxed, chill children.”

Maybe so, but they weren’t exactly kind about her drinking. Five or six months into her first pregnancy, Meyer was in Beacon Hill buying liquor for a party she was throwing when the clerk questioned whether he was legally allowed to sell to her. “I told him it’s illegal not to,” she says, but she still felt compelled to explain that she was shopping for a party, not herself. He needed to call his manager anyway. At various times throughout her two pregnancies, Meyer was also refused wine at restaurants. At least one waiter wouldn’t even show her the wine list.

For every smart and informed woman who’s chosen to have the occasional drink while carrying a baby, however, there are others who’ve made the opposite decision. One female friend of mine who regularly, and loudly, shares her point of view with pregnant women in restaurants around Boston, calls drinking while pregnant the “most selfish act imaginable. I think those women should be put in jail!” And Baskin, whose drinking never progressed beyond that O’Doul’s, says, “I’d think of my baby swimming in a pool of chardonnay and being like, ‘Mommy.’”

Eliana Stern, a mother of two who lives in Exeter, New Hampshire, believes that “part of being a good mother is loving your child more than you love yourself, and that means not drinking while you’re pregnant. Drinking can cause irreparable damage to the baby. Mothers who cause fetal alcohol syndrome in their babies have to live with that fact their entire lives. By not drinking during pregnancy, I gave my children the best chance to reach their full potential in life.”

Charlestown Yoga Studio owner Kristin Quinn, 33, used to feel that way, too. She recalls the time she was having a drink at the Liberty Hotel a few years back when she saw a very pregnant woman sipping a glass of red wine. “And I just couldn’t stop staring—‘Oh my God, that is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,’” Quinn says. A year and a half later she was pregnant with her first child and very sorry she’d been so judgmental. “I literally remember my first sip of wine,” says Quinn, who now writes a blog called Misadventures in Mommyhood. “It was so delicious.” From then on, she enjoyed what she calls a ceremonial half glass every Friday. “It was just something to look forward to and nothing dangerous,” she says. “Sometimes, I didn’t even finish it. It’s actually better than to be stressed out.” But she wouldn’t drink in public. “I knew people were out there judging,” she says, because, of course, she had been one of them. “You just feel like you have a big target on your face.”