On February 2, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a widely-panned press release about the dangers of alcohol-fueled sex. Basically, they warned that any woman of childbearing age (defined as 15-44) should stop drinking if they’re not currently on birth control. The rationale is that women who accidentally conceive might not know they’re pregnant and harm the fetus by continuing to consume alcohol. The Atlantic has a great recap and analysis of the announcement.
Though the CDC recommendation is widely considered to be overkill, it does bring up the ongoing debate about what level of drinking is considered “safe” during pregnancy. The Atlantic article also does a good job of examining both sides of that question, so I won’t dwell on that here. Instead, I asked a number of real, live moms for their take; here are their anonymous responses.
Question: Did you have the occasional drink during any of your pregnancies?
Response 1: Yes! I think it’s ridiculous how demonized women have been who have engaged in a glass of wine or two during pregnancy. There’s nothing wrong with it. Women in Europe have been doing it for centuries. I also had kombucha and other fermented foods because my body craved them. I don’t agree with excessive use of alcohol, but the occasional glass of wine will not hurt a fetus.
The world makes sweeping generalized “rules” based on a few unique or emergency cases about everything. It’s become an epidemic and if women don’t adhere to the common modern thinking on an issue, they’re immediately seen as willfully putting a life at risk, by extension becoming terrible mothers before they’ve even given birth. I think we need to trust our instincts and listen to our bodies, certainly much more than we need to follow the letter of some mythical collective wisdom and forced regulation of our behaviors.
Response 2: Yes, I did, but my body dictated what I could handle. I had great doctors during my pregnancy and nothing was forbidden; we talked about choices. Honestly, they both said have a glass or two – just don’t over do it and not every day.
Listen to your body and choose a doctor that you have similar values with and can talk openly to. Believe in yourself and know you know your body the best.
Response 3: My take is that if I wanted to have a glass of wine and I was pregnant, I would, but I would definitively not do it often or drink a lot. I have been in the US pregnant and got bad looks more than once for having a glass.
I tend to believe that, as with everything in life, moderation is always best. If you are pregnant, you can’t do everything as if you wouldn’t be, but it is not good either to forbid everything.
Response 4: I did not drink at all during my pregnancies, but I don’t drink very much when I’m not pregnant, so for me it was just a question of “Why do it if I’m not missing it?” I don’t judge women who have an occasional glass of wine, very occasional. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest too much alcohol in pregnancy is harmful, so I think it’s irresponsible of a woman to drink regularly, every day, but I think an occasional glass of wine or a beer once or twice is OK. I just chose not to because I’m not a big drinker anyway, so it was a no-brainer for me to just abstain and not take the risk at all.
I’ve had friends who really drank a lot during their pregnancies. I think different cultures view it differently as well; Europeans are looser in their recommendations than Americans, say, who are very conservative in their “allowances.” I think ingesting any chemical while you’re pregnant is risky for the baby.
My kids were super healthy: high birth weight, full term, vaginal births, no drugs, breastfed. They have been very, very healthy their whole lives – never an ear infection, never on antibiotics. Is there a connection? Who knows?
Response 5: Yes, I did – beer and cocktails, but no shots. [Being Chinese], everyone told me “no you shouldn’t drink that” – even black tea! But I think many of the restrictions are ridiculous. I quit smoking because I know it’s really bad for my baby, but other things, like not eating crab and other seafood, hawthorn, and coffee, not attending weddings and funerals, eating watermelon, not raising my arms above my head – which no one could explain to me – are just stupid.
Response 6: Yes, I had an occasional drink during both pregnancies – never hard alcohol, but a glass of wine now and then. “Why” is a good question. I like wine, and in [my home country]they always said one glass now and then is OK, but they don’t encourage drinking obviously.
Even within Europe and America, there are many different opinions. I have met those who would never drink anything and those who would from both continents; I have met people who thought I was crazy and those who didn’t. I think Americans tend to share their thoughts more while Europeans keep their opinions more to themselves.
Response 7: I never had a drop both during pregnancy and after for breastfeeding. It is proven it is bad for the fetus; the rest for me is noise. It’s like sushi: you are gambling if you eat it. It can be an innocent thing or turn into a real problem. I tend not to judge moms who drink; I realize they have a higher risk tolerance.
Response 8: I did not drink at all; I didn’t even like to take medication during my pregnancy. The child is my responsibility, so I feel it’s not fair for me to [take risks], even during breastfeeding. If I have a question mark about it, then I just don’t do it. With things like coffee for example, nobody said it’s bad, but you shouldn’t have five to six cups a day. I could give up medicine and alcohol, but I couldn’t give up coffee; I had to have it at least once in the morning.
Dr. Juliette Kinn, an OB/GYN at Oasis International Hospital, generally advocates erring on the side of caution. She cites the known teratogenic (embryo-disrupting) effects of alcohol, which can cause fetal alcohol syndrome when ingested during pregnancy. Symptoms include delayed growth, microcephaly and other facial abnormalities, and disorders of the central nervous system, including mental retardation.
“The question is about the threshold,” she says. “A number of complications have been reported [from drinking alcohol during pregnancy], such as miscarriage, fetal death, intra-uterine growth impairment, facial abnormalities and other malformations, and behavioral anomalies.”
“There is no minimum threshold at which the anomalies appear. Moderate consumption can cause behavioral anomalies and genetic factors influence individual susceptibility.”
Dr. Kinn recommends staying in line with international guidelines to avoid alcohol during pregnancy.
“To the moms-to-be who had alcohol during their first trimester and didn’t know they were pregnant: there is nothing you can do about it now, so don’t worry and enjoy your pregnancy,” she says.
“But if you plan to be pregnant and know that you are, abstinence is the wisest choice.”
[Update, 5.05pm: Here are some additional responses we received.]
Response 9: I generally think it’s OK to have the occasional drink when you’re pregnant. For my first pregnancy I didn’t do that as often even though my OB told me that it would be OK. He said you can have a glass of wine every day or couple of days, but it’s not like you can accumulate a whole week’s glasses of wine and have 5-6 on one evening – not that I was going to be a pregnant woman getting drunk anyway. I had maybe a few glasses of wine throughout the whole pregnancy, but never more than one.
For my second pregnancy, probably about the same. Mostly I tried to stay away from alcohol in the first trimester; I felt a bit better about it later on in the pregnancy because by then, the major organs have developed and your baby is just growing in mass. Generally, I don’t place any judgment on pregnant women who choose to have that occasional glass of wine.
Response 10: I don’t drink (like never ever), so I never had alcohol during any of my pregnancies. I do think it’s important for women to not drink during pregnancy, the same that it’s important not to smoke. From a health perspective, for mother and child there’s evidence to show that it is best not to partake of alcohol and cigarettes.
Now is it the same effect if someone only does it a few times during pregnancy? Probably not, but why expose your unborn child to such harmful substances? It’s a woman’s body and she’s free to choose … but from a health perspective it makes sense not to.
Sijia Chen is a contributing editor at beijingkids and a freelance writer specializing in parenting, education, travel, environment, and culture. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The Independent, Midnight Poutine, Rover Arts, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @sijiawrites or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Creative Commons photo courtesy of Emiliano De Laurentiis (Flickr)