A study that advised pregnant women to avoid all caffeine has been labelled alarmist, after it suggested drinking any caffeine during pregnancy exposes the baby to increased risks.
The current recommended safe level of caffeine for women during pregnancy is 200 milligrams a day – equal to about two cups of fine International Roast (or instant coffee of your choice).
Professor Jack James, a psychologist at Iceland’s Reykjavik University, stirred the pot this week with his research that suggested there is no “safe” level of caffeine, and that its ingestion (by pregnant women) can be linked to low birth weights and even miscarriage and stillbirths.
Medical experts from around the globe were quick to howl down Professor James’ findings, published this week in the BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine journal.
- Related: Pandemic’s effect on pregnancy
At the top of the criticism pile was the fact the report was not based on fresh research, but on the observations of 48 different studies spanning two decades.
This means the majority of women surveyed were asked to recall their caffeine habits, rather than document them at the time, University of Melbourne lecturer and senior obstetrician Alex Polyakov explained.
“It is well known that people who suffer an adverse outcome are more likely to recall and possibly exaggerate their exposure,” Dr Polyakov said.
“So it is unsurprising that women who suffered one of the adverse pregnancy outcomes examined would be more likely to recall any behaviour that they may consider to be contributory to that outcome, caffeine consumption being one of them.”
Professor James has acknowledged this weakness in his work, but he still maintains women trying to fall pregnant and who are pregnant should avoid caffeine.
University of Adelaide’s Luke Grzeskowiak said the conclusion was “overly alarmist and inconsistent with the evidence”.
Dr Grzeskowiak maintained the current recommendations of less than 200 to 300 milligrams of caffeine a day were unlikely to harm a pregnancy.
“There are so many dos and don’ts associated with pregnancy and the last thing we need is to cause unnecessary anxiety,” he said.
“At the end of the day, women should be reassured that caffeine can be consumed in moderation during pregnancy.”
For pregnant women who rely on the energy boost that caffeine gives them, accredited practising dietitian Melanie McGrice has a few alternative suggestions.
“Instead of coffee for energy, I recommend checking iron levels, ensuring adequate water consumption, getting plenty of sleep and ensuring small, regular meals including low-GI carbohydrates,” Ms McGrice said.
She said that while many pregnant women found themselves with an aversion to coffee during pregnancy, for those still wanting one, decaffeinated was a safe choice.
But, as always, consult your GP for personalised health advice.