Drinking While Pregnant: How Much Is Too Much?

Having a glass of wine or two while knocked up used to be No Big Thing, but it seems like the guidelines keep changing. With all the contradictory advice, where do you draw the line?

Drinking while pregnant has become almost synonymous with bad motherhood, at least in the U.S., where one glass of wine in a restaurant can send the eyebrows of nearby diners shooting through the roof (yes, I have observed this first hand). Apparently, this is also true in the U.K. In a piece in the Guardian, Catherine Phipps explores the ins and outs of alcohol consumption and the ever-changing guidelines designed to protect the fetus and scare the mother.

The British Department of Health (DOH) currently advises mothers to abstain from drinking entirely, as does the U.S. Center for Disease Control. In response to the question: "Is it okay to drink when pregnant?" the CDC admonishes: "No, there is no safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant should refrain from drinking alcohol." However, Phipps points out that this often is, for all practical purposes, often translated as "we don't want you to drink, but if you must, limit it to 1-2 units, once or twice a week." Indeed, the "1-2 units" has become common wisdom. Drinking is a bad idea, but some alcohol is safe. It's just not clear how much.

Phipps points to another piece of official advice, which is rife with contradictions:

It gets muddier - this document (pdf) from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), doesn't advise total abstinence throughout the nine months. At one point, it recommends not exceeding 1-2 units once or twice a week, and in the next, advises not drinking "more than 7.5 units of alcohol on a single occasion" - couldn't this unnecessary binge drinking warning be taken to imply that drinking up to that amount is fine?

But the government - in both the U.S. and Great Britain - still tells women just say no. Why? Phipps concludes its out of paternalism and basic lack of trust. If women are told not to drink at all, surely they will drink less, right?

Except this has resulted in a strange fanaticism on the part of non-mothers. While most doctors are okay with a drink now and then, bartenders have been known to refuse to serve visibly pregnant women, and strangers have come to think its somehow their job to police a woman's alcohol intake simply because she's with child. According to Phipps, Americans are the worst when it comes to meddlesome behavior. She mentions a restaurant in New York that displays a sign reading: "Pregnant women please do not ask our waiting staff to harm your unborn child by ordering alcohol." Although women in the U.K. feel the pressure, it makes sense that our country, so prone to extremes and dichotomies, would have a particularly difficult time understanding a woman's right to moderation. It is also a disheartening reminder that women are still seen, even when in the throes of motherhood, as somehow child-like and in need of constant guidance. Ultimately, Phipps argues in favor of letting a woman decide for herself — even if that means serving her a gin and tonic. Naturally, we're inclined to agree.

Alcohol And Pregnancy - Conflict And Confusion [Guardian]
Alcohol And Public Health - FAQs [CDC]