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booze

The mixed messages around alcohol and pregnancy

Originally published on The Pool

During my pregnancy last year, my doctor and I would meet weekly to laugh about my latest hilarious health misadventure.

We chortled through my gestational diabetes diagnosis, and hooted when a combination of a cracked rib and hyperemesis gravidarum caused me to redecorate her waiting room in projectile vomit. Finally, when I bruised my coccyx going over in a chocolate shop and started to unravel with stress, my doctor unequivocally prescribed a night on the sofa with a glass of wine.

“What?” I responded. “Aren’t pregnant women supposed to avoid alcohol?” “Well, yes and no,” my doctor told me. “You shouldn’t drink in the first three months of pregnancy, and then stick to a couple of units of alcohol a week if you drink at all. But in this case, I’d say, ‘happy mummy, happy baby’.”

So, that night, I took her at at her word and enjoyed a very stress-relieving glass of chilled chablis. I also sipped prosecco at my hen party, champagne at my wedding and a particularly throaty cabernet sauvignon during my honeymoon – happy in the knowledge that, because I was drinking very moderately, I was operating within medical approval.

But now the British Medical Association (BMA) is warning that any alcohol consumption during pregnancy could damage an unborn child.

“Exposure to alcohol before birth affects up to one in every 100 infants,” says Professor Sir Aynsley-Green from the BMA. “It is one of the most significant causes of childhood brain damage, learning disability, poor behaviour and even criminality. There is no ‘safe’ limit for alcohol consumption during pregnancy.”

Even more terrifyingly (at a point when, let’s face it, you’re probably terrified enough already), the effects of alcohol damage may not be initially detectable, according to the BMA’s Professor Sheila Hollins, ranging from “subtle damage that affects intelligence, behaviour and relationships to severe physical and learning disabilities”.

This news has sent me racing upstairs to check my sleeping five-month-old son over for (possibly invisible) signs of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. He seems fine now, if scandalised at being poked awake, but if he goes on to develop some problem linked to my alcohol consumption, will I brush it off with a blithe, “Well, my doctor said ‘happy mummy, happy baby’?” Of course not.

But it seems cruel to penalise pregnant women, especially those of us who indulged before we realised we were pregnant (in fact, that’s probably how a lot of us became pregnant). What with feeling blue, suddenly hating your favourite foods and the very real threat of tipping over in a chocolate shop, most expectant mothers have enough to worry about.

Clare Murphy from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) agrees: “Women are being scared witless by current alcohol messaging.

“If the guidance needs amending in any way, it is to reassure women who have had an episode of binge-drinking before they found out that they were pregnant that they are extremely unlikely to have caused their baby harm.”

BPAS also claim that risks to babies are often exaggerated. So which is it? Are we harming our unborn children by drinking, or not? With my doctor telling me one thing and the Department of Health saying another – not to mention that, during the same hospital visit, one midwife said I should avoid alcohol, and another advised that wine could bring on labour – I was awash with muddled guidance during my pregnancy.

Professor Aynsley-Green has called alcohol messaging “inconsistent, contradictory and confusing”, and I’d have to agree. Conflicting advice is often the way of pregnancy. One minute you’re told to avoid peanuts, and the next peanut butter is back on the menu, and even the birth plan you’re advised to lovingly craft is often flung in the bin the second you hit the delivery suite.

Whatever the outcome of the BMA’s recommendations, however they translate to NHS guidelines for pregnant women, I think doctors and midwives should find a line, and stick to it.

I don’t judge anyone for drinking during pregnancy, and I’d prefer not to be judged myself and, I mean, I really enjoyed drinking during my pregnancy – it made the ride that little bit easier.

But the bottom line is this: had my doctor not told me to go ahead and have that glass of chablis, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to drink it or any alcohol during my pregnancy, and I wouldn’t be hovering by my son’s cot right now, wondering what’s to become of him.