The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) said that women can drink up to 1.5 units of alcohol a day without harming their unborn baby.
This contradicts Department of Health advice that mothers-to-be should not drink at all and will leave women wondering which set of “official” guidelines to follow.
In a draft document, NICE, which devises public health guidance for the Government, said the evidence behind the Department of Health’s call for abstinence is “unclear”.
After reviewing a series of studies on drinking in pregnancy, the NICE advisers, who include doctors and midwives, said that other than possibly increasing the risk of miscarriage, it appeared small amounts of alcohol did not harm the unborn baby.
Instead of cutting out alcohol altogether, pregnant women should limit their intake to 1.5 units a day and, if possible, avoid it in the first three months of pregnancy. (A small glass of wine counts as one unit, as does half a pint of ordinary strength lager, while a bottle of alcopop counts as 1.5 units.)
A NICE spokesman said it was anticipated the Department of Health would issue “clear advice” on the issue when the final version of the NICE guidance is issued next March.
However, the Department of Health said its advice to avoid alcohol all together was “straightforward” and “simple”.
A spokesman said: “Although there is scientific uncertainty about the precise impact of excess alcohol on unborn babies, we believed the time was right to introduce a strong, consistent and precautionary approach. Our advice is simple: avoid alcohol if you are pregnant or trying to conceive.”
But Doctors said the mixed messages could only confuse pregnant women.
Dr David Williams, consultant obstetric physician at the Institute for Women’s Health at University College London Hospitals, described the Department of Health’s message of abstinence as “draconian”. He said: “I think the NICE advice is accurate according to the data we have got – a total ban is not a good thing.”
But Andrew Shennan, professor of obstetrics for the baby charity Tommy’s, said: “The message from the Government provides a simple guideline for women to follow, insofar as no alcohol means no risk.”