When it comes to drinking alcohol when you’re pregnant, the official word from the Department of Health is to avoid alcohol completely. This advice also extends to those trying for a baby. But this hasn’t always been the case.
Before May 2007, the Government’s guidance was that one to two units of alcohol per week, once or twice a week, were safe during pregnancy. The change in advice didn’t stem from new scientific evidence, but was a move made to ensure pregnant women didn’t underestimate the risks alcohol can pose to an unborn baby. Risks associated with drinking in pregnancy, particularly if it’s heavy drinking, include low birth weight, heart defects, learning problems, behaviourial problems, foetal alcohol spectrum disorders and foetal alcohol syndrome (also known as FAS). Scary stuff, right?
However, drinking when you’re a mum-to-be isn’t as clear-cut as it may first sound. There’s a raft of studies out there and, as you’d expect, there are some that contradict each other on low-level drinking. In 2009, we reported on a study that indicated a small amount of alcohol didn’t harm your baby. Yet in early 2011, another set of research suggested even a little alcohol could have a huge impact.
Adding to this confusion is that the official guidance to steer clear is usually followed up with a statement along the lines of what you’ll find on NHS Choices – that is, “If you do choose to drink, to minimise the risk to your unborn baby, you should not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week. You should not get drunk and avoid binge drinking. For women, binge drinking means drinking more than six units of alcohol a day.”
It feels as though the ball’s in our court when it comes to light drinking in our pregnancies. For heavy drinking though, the story stays the same – don’t do it.
Official guidelines aside, what are UK mums actually doing? We spoke with three new parents (two mums and one dad) about their approach to alcohol. We also want you to add your own stories below to gain a true picture of what British mums think about drinking with a bump. Will you be raising a glass of something this Christmas?
Avoiding alcohol completely, from IVF to birth
“I decided not to drink any alcohol during my pregnancy. This decision followed on from an earlier decision, where I gradually phased out alcohol from my diet, starting almost a year before my first IVF treatment. This was to improve my fertility. I understand there are some well documented health risks to the baby’s development when the mother consumes alcohol during pregnancy, and even though it may be safe in small quantities, I decided to play it safe, especially since achieving this pregnancy was always a long term plan.”
Bess*, who gave birth earlier this year to a baby boy
Light drinking, without any real decision made
“My partner, Nicola, 38, has never been a big alcohol drinker. She’s more of a lemongrass and boysenberry smoothie type of person, so drinking in pregnancy was never an issue. That’s not to say she didn’t enjoy a tipple during her two pregnancies.
“While pregnant with Samuel, Nicky would have the occasional half of Guinness, mainly for the iron, although I’ve since learned that iron in Guinness is a bit of a myth. One egg or a bowl of Weetabix actually contains more iron than a pint of Guinness. She also had the odd sip or two of wine during a meal, but they really were only sips.
“While pregnant with Hester, I think Nicky was more relaxed than with Samuel. She enjoyed the occasional half-tumbler of my beer when I had some, maybe because I’ve got into proper micro-brewery beer as I’ve got older, and again, she’d have a few sips of wine with a meal. All-in-all she probably only drank the equivalent of one bottle of wine over the entire nine months.
“We never discussed drinking alcohol because we didn’t need to. It made life harder for me, though, because I can’t stand to see a job go unfinished, and what can you do with an open bottle of wine but finish it…”
John Perkins, 39, dad to Samuel, 4, and Hester, 6 months
Light drinking, carefully researched and then monitored
“As a pregnant woman, and previously regular drinker, I must admit I panicked at the thought of going nine months without a single drink. As a honeymoon baby, those early cells had already had a fair few cocktails pass their way, but I didn’t lose any sleep over that – what’s done is done, and I believed the embryo was too young to have come to harm.
“I was abstinent for the next three months, during which time I read up on all the advice, but it soon became clear that, well, it was far from clear. Up until a couple of years ago, it was fine to have ‘one or two units, once or twice a week’, but now, not so much as a sip. But from what I could see, it wasn’t that any new evidence had come to light proving the ill effects of the odd tipple – it was that Doctors decided that in the absence of any proof that having the occasional drink DOESN’T harm the baby, they should err on the side of caution and tell us to call it quits completely. But I genuinely couldn’t see that something which was previously okay could had suddenly become harmful, so I decided – with my husband, as I saw it as a joint decision – that the odd tipple would be okay.
“The amount of drinks (each below two units) I had throughout my pregnancy averaged out as one a month. I wrote down each one religiously, so I didn’t forget and have more than I ought to, and even learned the formula to calculate the amount of units in your drink – multiply the size of the drink in millilitres by its alcohol percentage and divide by 1000, science fans.
“But to me, it was important for my own sense of well-being, and to retain a sense of ‘myself’, rather than just feel like an incubator, which I felt was ultimately really beneficial to my well-being. And a happy healthy, relaxed mum surely makes for a happy, healthy baby, which, I’m delighted to say, my 9-month-old daughter is.
“So, why did I feel the need to change my name on this article? Unfortunately, whilst I’m quite happy with my own decision, and had the full support of my husband, in my experience, some of the most judgmental people are other mums. But I say, we’re all grown-ups, and it’s up to us to make this very personal decision for ourselves.”
Teresa*, mum to a 9-month-old baby girl
*Names changed by request
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