PREGNANT PAUSE ON ALCOHOL
The advice from experts is clear: there’s no “safe” level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy. But that message becomes impacted by a lot of human factors
More and more is being understood about foetal alcohol spectrum disorder ( FASD), an umbrella term for a range of physical, developmental and neurological disabilities resulting from alcohol consumption in pregnancy.
Health experts believe it’s far more widespread than previously believed. In the US, FASD is the most common cause of developmental delay and is estimated to affect between 2 and 7 per cent of all births.
This isn’t a condition that’s only found in disadvantaged pockets of the community, because drinking isn’t confined to socioeconomic groups, explains Elizabeth Elliott, a professor of paediatrics and child health at the University of Sydney.
“What we do know is that women who don’t drink any alcohol during pregnancy face no risks of [this kind of] damage to their foetus,” she says. “Frequent, high intakes of alcohol, and particularly binge drinking, increases the risk.
“What we don’t know is the risk to an individual pregnancy. Each pregnancy is different and every woman’s body responds differently to alcohol consumption because of a range of factors such as age, body composition, genetics and prior disease.”
So, she strongly advises that expecting and trying-to-conceive women apply the precautionary principle as recommended in Australia’s national alcohol guidelines that “not drinking alcohol is the safest option”.
However, that’s where some of these human factors come in.
Despite living in an age of highly accessible contraception, almost 50 per cent of pregnancies in Australia are unplanned. Add to that another contemporary issue of the sharp increase in young women binge drinking, and the message of having an alcohol-free pregnancy becomes blurred.
A new study from Newcastle University has revealed that eight in 10 expectant mums drink alcohol in pregnancy – 64 per cent higher than found in other Australian studies.
This follows survey results released last year by the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education which found that 47 per cent of Australian women interviewed consumed alcohol while pregnant before knowing they’d conceived – and almost 20 per cent drank alcohol after confirmation of their pregnancy.
The most comparable figures for how much mums are drinking come from the US, where almost 1.5 per cent of women reported binge drinking while pregnant.
Elliott understands the panic women can feel if they continued drinking at high levels while unknowingly pregnant: “We know birth defects can result from first trimester alcohol exposure – although the foetus is vulnerable throughout the pregnancy.
“The best advice we can provide is that the woman talks about her alcohol consumption with her health provider. In most cases we’ll be able to provide reassurance that everything should be fine but if there are concerns, at least we can be prepared for that.”
Meanwhile, Elliott’s advice for women who are planning to get pregnant is “stop drinking now”.
She describes prevention as the only option. This should involve public education strategies such as labelling of alcoholic drinks. Currently, labelling of the harms of alcohol in pregnancy is voluntary, but Elliott would like to see it mandated and enforced.
“The impact of FASD on a family is devastating and it’s more common than we think,” she says. “Strategies which focus on prevention are vital.”