American women are often shocked to travel abroad and see obviously pregnant European women drinking wine and beer. With all the warnings about fetal alcohol syndrome and birth defects that are ingrained in our collective consciousness, these Europeans look irresponsible to our American eyes.
The truth, of course, isn't that Europeans are bad mothers, but rather that public health policies are tricky to establish and even harder to communicate. So is it safe to drink during pregnancy?
The First Month
Many women don't realize they're pregnant until six to eight weeks after conception. If they've been drinking during that time, they may fear long-term damage to their babies. The good news is that the first month of pregnancy is something of a grace period. For the first 11 days or so, your baby doesn't receive blood directly from your body, so it isn't affected by what you eat or drink. Once your baby starts to develop, everything you consume goes straight to your baby through your blood, and this is where alcohol can have an impact.
As your baby develops, the risks from alcohol exposure grow. A 2003 study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that low levels of alcohol impaired the physical and mental reactions of babies, with symptoms appearing at the age of eight months.
Getting the Message Out
While excessive alcohol consumption is known to cause birth defects in some cases, and moderate consumption may impair cognitive and physical ability, there's no research to suggest that a single glass of wine will harm a baby. Researchers simply don't know how much alcohol consumption is safe. This is further complicated by personal views of what constitutes excessive drinking, since some people consider three or four drinks a day to be perfectly normal.
This lack of agreement leaves public health officials with no choice but to recommend that all pregnant women abstain from alcohol throughout pregnancy. This is the safest advice for everyone, since it eliminates any grey areas or loopholes. It's also a bit alarmist, since no study suggests that a single drink will put your baby at risk.
Practically, the best advice for women is to avoid all hard liquor during pregnancy and to drastically limit alcohol intake during pregnancy. That doesn't mean you need to run from coq au vin or shun every proposed toast. An occasional sip of wine or champagne won't harm your baby, so long as you can limit your intake to that very occasional glass. If you can't control your drinking, all alcohol should be avoided.
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