UK research has suggested drinking alcohol while pregnant could be safe when consumed in small quantities, but Australian experts are not convinced.
Bristol University researchers found there is “surprisingly little evidence” that ‘light drinking’ – defined as no more than two small alcoholic drinks per week – is dangerous to an unborn child.
Chronic, high-level drinking, on the other hand, is strongly associated with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder — severe health problems such as cognitive impairment caused by foetal alcohol exposure.
However, recent JAMA Paediatrics research, which focused on low levels of alcohol consumption in pregnant women, has warned that even small amounts of alcohol can impact a baby’s development.
University of Western Australia’s Dr Colleen O’Leary, who was involved with the research, said even low levels of alcohol consumption were linked to changes to facial structure.
These include the shape of the face, small eyes, no groove above the lip, a short nose and a thin upper lip.
“The study followed a group of women during the pregnancy and after the birth looking at how much alcohol was consumed and how often,” she told The New Daily.
“It found that there can be some changes in the shape of the head and face.
“Babies with foetal alcohol syndrome have severe, obvious facial structure abnormalities.”
The first trimester remains the most important time to avoid alcohol, but there is “no safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy”.
University of Queensland’s Professor Karen Moritz, the director of the Child Health Research Centre, said there was some evidence that alcohol would potentially put the baby at risk.
“It will depend on a combination of genetics, general health and what a ‘small’ amount means,” Professor Moritz said.
“It depends on how quickly the mother can break down the alcohol in her body because the faster, the less exposed the foetus is to the alcohol.
“And also whether the woman is eating while drinking.
“Probably in most cases, there will be no obvious detrimental effects. But it’s a case of whether it’s worth that risk.”
Oxford Centre for Neuroethics’ Julian Savulescu agreed that abstaining from drinking altogether during pregnancy remained the safest option.
“There is a distinction between law and ethics: people ought to be legally free to impose small or uncertain risks on their children, or unborn child,” he said.
“But morally, they ought to avoid those risks provided the cost to them is not too high.
“We ought to put seat belts on our children, even if they resist, not only because it is the law, but because it is right, even though the risk of injury on any single trip is very small.”