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Debate: We need to tell pregnant women not to drink alcohol

Although it’s accepted that binge-drinking poses significant risks to a foetus, health professionals and the public are divided on the effects of an occasional drink after 12 weeks.

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A RECENT STUDY  suggests that over 60% of Irish mothers drink alcohol during pregnancy. The research looked at more than 3,500 Irish maternal records from 1990 to 2011 and examined the rate of foetal alcohol syndrome, where the baby in the womb was affected.

The official advice from the Department of Health is that women should not drink any alcohol during pregnancy. However there is no strong evidence that low levels of drinking is harmful. We asked two commentators to tell us their views.

YES. Being American and growing up surrounded by health education and open diagnoses regarding substance abuse, I, of course, think everyone is an alcoholic and should go to AA.

I admit, I love to diagnose (with no qualification) psychiatric and substance abuse issues, and that I have been influenced by what is an overzealous health care system (with severe issues of its own) and media culture in the United States.

Before I was pregnant, I had plenty of interesting conversations about healers and home remedies with Irish colleagues and friends. I also had a few friendly debates about the merits of booze to cure my upset stomach, my flu, and of course my headache from drinking too much booze the night before.

The same people that refused to take medication preferred to drink their remedies, and believed this was a healthier and more natural option than popping pills like Americans. Maybe it is healthier but what it definitely is to me, is the confirmation that popular beliefs about alcohol play a stronger role in many Irish people’s decisions than medical evidence or health education.

In Ireland I felt a bit silly and paranoid for maintaining that doctors don’t know exactly what level of alcohol affects the foetus so it was safest to not drink. I had an odd drink or sip and didn’t feel particularly guilty because I knew I would never drink more than that but I was also aware of the public image a pregnant woman drinking alcohol presents and I wasn’t comfortable normalising that image.

Since it is unknown what level of alcohol consumption causes Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and alcohol consumption is notoriously open to subjective and cultural interpretation, why believe that the average woman understands what a few drinks means? How much is “a few” drinks while pregnant?

I heard a woman say that drinking a six-pack was fine once it was only West Coast Coolers. I also heard women and men agree that it’s safe to drink in the last trimester because the baby is already developed when in fact the liver is not developed. Most husbands and wives can’t agree on the definition of “having one” so why did the Irish government think the public could?

I hope that the clear recommendation to avoid drink will make pregnancy easier for women in Ireland by presenting a consistent public health message and associated education that should result in a shift in culture around drink (without thinking everyone needs Alcoholics Anonymous).

Colleen Hennessy is a writer and mother to two Kerry-born munchkins. She can be reached at colleenhennessy.com or @colleenhennessy4 on Twitter. 

NO. This kind of thinking opens the door to monitoring women’s behaviour in pregnancy. What about the binge eating mom who risks passing on diabetes? Or the cyclist who might fall off and injure herself? Or the vegetarian lacking iron?

We all know that excessive drinking in pregnancy is very stupid and irresponsible. We know that drinking a lot of alcohol – six or more units a day – can cause foetal alcohol syndrome, which stunts the mental and physical development of a child, and can even trigger a miscarriage. We know that a baby’s organs can’t deal with alcohol in the way that ours can.

However, there is no confusion about how much is safe. And – of course – many women who are not alcoholics drink too much before even realising that they are pregnant. But for the vast majority of women, discovering they’re having a baby switches on the overwhelming instinct to protect and nurture.

We women are lectured to enough when it comes to our bodies. It’s time for us to take back control. Yes, we will listen politely to the advice. But then, as with all advice, we will make our own decisions as to whether to adhere to it or not.

And so – with respect, health professionals, media and general busybodies – let us decide how to treat our body during the time we might be carrying that child. Which will be to the best of our ability – but we’re not going to beat ourselves up about a cup of coffee, a piece of blue cheese or a half glass of wine.

Lorraine Courtney is a journalist.

What do you think? Is it okay to leave it up to women themselves whether to drink very occasionally during pregnancy? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Ireland has the worst rates in the world for drinking during pregnancy>

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