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Drinking While Pregnant: Can I Have a Glass of Wine, When I’m Expecting?

Women's Health UK logo Women's Health UK 16/09/2020 LAURA TILT, REGISTERED DIETITIAN
If you're wondering if it's okay to have a drink now and then, while you're pregnant, read on for the expert view. © Provided by Women's Health UK If you're wondering if it's okay to have a drink now and then, while you're pregnant, read on for the expert view.

Drinking while pregnant: a phrase sure to result in a whole lot of emotions rising to the fore. Is one glass of wine, now and then okay–or is it better to have a total 'no-go' policy? To answer your question, WH asked registered dietitian and founder of Tilt Nutrition, Laura Tilt, for the expert view.

‘Oh, go on, one can’t hurt.’ As unsolicited health advice goes, this is one to file alongside ‘you can’t get pregnant if he pulls out’ in the folder entitled ‘no PhD, no opinion’. And never are you subjected to more opinions-masquerading-as-facts than when you’re having a baby. Drinking while pregnant is, for sure, one of the top 10 issues that people from various walks of your life feel surprisingly qualified to comment on.

Your elderly relatives can probably recall a time when drinking alcohol in pregnancy was not only accepted, but recommended, thanks in part to a belief that Guinness is high in iron (spoiler: it isn’t). While experts now agree that regular drinking during pregnancy is harmful, advice around the occasional drink is conflicting, and confusing.

Drinking while pregnant: what's the deal?

Guidelines around drinking during pregnancy exist because alcohol readily passes through the placenta. Given that a growing baby doesn’t have a developed liver to process alcohol, there’s a risk of short and long-term harm, which includes miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight and foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) – the umbrella name for a group of lifelong conditions caused by prenatal alcohol exposure.

Their severity depends on the amount drunk, the pattern of drinking and stage of pregnancy. The most severe form– linked with heavy drinking – is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which results in a small head size, low height, facial abnormalities and learning disabilities. Milder effects frequently go undiagnosed and may not be apparent until childhood, with UK research suggesting as many as 17% of children may be affected.

Risks to a baby increase with the amount of alcohol consumed. According to the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, the chances of a low birth weight and preterm birth may be increased if you’re drinking above one or two units per day (a 125ml glass of 12% wine is around 1.5 units). Evidence also shows that heavy and frequent binge drinking (the latter classed as six or more units in a single sitting, or around two large glasses of wine) is strongly linked with FASD.

Is it safe to have a glass of wine while pregnant?

When it comes to the occasional tipple, evidence is inconsistent and harder to interpret. Several large reviews have found no consistent evidence of harm, but acute studies show that even one or two units of alcohol can change foetal breathing. The issue is further confused by influences like nutrition, smoking, age, social support and stress. Factor in, too, conflicting media headlines and previous government guidelines (recommending abstinence, but also a safe limit) and it’s no wonder you’re confused.

In an attempt to provide clarity, UK guidelines on pregnancy and drinking were updated in 2016, based on a review by independent experts. Their joint view? The safest approach is to avoid alcohol entirely. It’s worth noting the guidelines acknowledge that risks of low levels of drinking are probably small, but there isn’t enough evidence to establish a ‘safe’ level. Some experts feel that prohibition is too harsh, but the guidelines aim to provide clarity in the face of uncertainty.

If you drank alcohol before you found out? The advice is not to worry unnecessarily, as the risks of harm are likely to be low if only small amounts were consumed. If you’re concerned, chat to your midwife or doctor. The NHS Choices website and Tommy’s Pregnancy Hub also offer clear support and advice.

For now, thank the wellness industry– for alcohol-free rosé is not only a thing, it’s a trend. Cheers.

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