Despite the familiar surgeon general's warning advising women to abstain completely from alcoholic beverages during pregnancy "because of the risk of birth defects," there has never been any solid evidence that light to moderate consumption harms the fetus. New research from Denmark, funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicates once again that heavy drinking is the real hazard.
In a study involving more than 1,600 women reported in the June issue of BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, children whose mothers consumed nine or more drinks per week during pregnancy had shorter attention spans than children of abstainers at age 5 and were five times as likely to have low IQs. But no such effects were apparent in the children of women whose alcohol consumption during pregnancy was light (one to four drinks per week) or moderate (five to eight drinks per week). "Our findings show that low to moderate drinking is not associated with adverse effects on the children aged 5," the researchers said.
A "drink" as defined in this study contained 12 grams of pure ethanol, compared to the American standard of 14 grams, one-sixth more. But given the relatively wide consumption ranges, that difference probably does not matter much. Furthermore, self-reported drinking, especially by pregnant women, probably underestimates actual consumption, meaning that the amounts associated with no neurological impairment may be larger than those indicated by the study.
Bruce Goldman, director of Substance Abuse Service at the Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, deemed the new research unhelpful. "These findings can easily send a very dangerous message to pregnant women," he told CBS News. "Women may underestimate and have difficulty acknowledging the frequency or quantity of alcohol consumed. Those suffering from alcoholism may attempt to rationalize that it is safe to drink moderately, something they may ultimately be unable to do." The CDC likewise is not changing its recommendation of complete abstinence in light of the new data.