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Alcohol During Pregnancy: How Dangerous Is It Really?

Alcohol Pregnancy

The Huffington Post   Catherine Pearson First Posted: 04/06/11 10:45 AM ET Updated: 09/16/11 06:52 PM ET

The should-you-drink-during-pregnancy debate rages on, fueled by recent photos of pregnant actress Kate Hudson drinking what appears to be a glass of red wine while on vacation in Argentina.

As most people know, drinking during pregnancy is a risk factor for bad birth outcomes, most notably, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Alcohol can be passed to the baby via the placenta, resulting in things like learning disabilities, vision and hearing problems and low body weight. Which is why groups like the CDC and March of Dimes state that women who are pregnant or could become pregnant should abstain from alcohol entirely.

"No level of alcohol use during pregnancy has been proven safe," the March of Dimes' website states.

Dr. Ricki Pollycove, an OBGYN and HuffPost Health contributor, stresses her belief that women should absolutely avoid alcohol early on in pregnancy, when a baby's organs are still growing. She says that there have been rare cases when even isolated or infrequent alcohol intake early on in pregnancy has resulted in FAS.

But she says that it's her belief that once you are further along like Hudson, who is reportedly due in May, an occasional drink can be OK.

"Later on in your pregnancy -- and a good marker here is about the halfway mark or 20 weeks -- it's really not injurious in the same potentially catastrophic way. I tell my patients, 'If you're going to someone's wedding, enjoy it! You can have a glass of champagne.'"

Several recent studies have also shown that occasional drinking during pregnancy might not be so bad.

Last month, TIME reported that a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found no negative effects of drinking one glass of wine per week. And a recent New York Times article stated that while there is plenty of proof that regular drinking during pregnancy has negative effects, there have been few clinical trials and long-range studies looking at occasional drinking.

Why then does the U.S. Surgeon General state that pregnant women should abstain from alcohol altogether?

"It's their job to tell you that you shouldn't take any risks," said Dr. Amos Grunebaum, director of Obstetrics at Cornell University's Medical Center. "Of course, the safest thing is to drink no alcohol at all. That is the only way to completely eliminate the risk of FAS. But I take care of a lot of European patients, and it is very acceptable in Europe to occasionally drink a glass of wine."

Both Grunebaum and Pollycove stress that they are talking about a very small amount of alcohol per week -- around a glass or half a glass of wine -- and that the only way to entirely eliminate the risk of FAS is to avoid alcohol altogether. Both doctors also stress that the issue should be discussed by a woman and her provider so they can assess what is best for her.

"All of a sudden a woman is pregnant and people start to take liberties to tell her how she should behave," Grunebaum said. "It should be between her and her doctor -- not anybody else."


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