Low-to-moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy associated with premature birth

Women who drink low levels of alcohol in their first trimester of pregnancy may be at an increased risk of having a premature or small baby.

In new research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, British researchers surveyed 1,264 women regarding their alcohol consumption before and during their pregnancies. The U.K. Department of Health recommends that pregnant women and those trying to conceive should avoid alcohol and never drink more than 1 to 2 units (8 to 16 grams) of alcohol once a week. In the United States, a standard drink contains approximately 14 grams of alcohol; however, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant should avoid alcohol consumption altogether.

Past studies looking into the effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy typically focused on higher rates of consumption – but effects of low consumption have been inconsistent, researchers said.

“It’s easier to study the damaging effects of high [alcohol] intake, because the relationship is clearer; it’s harder to tease out association with lower intakes,” study author Camilla Nykjaer, of the school of food science and nutrition at the University of Leeds in Britain, told “We were surprised we actually found an association between such low intakes and premature and low gestational weight outcomes.”

Of the women surveyed, over 50 percent drank more than the U.K.’s recommended maximum of 16 grams of alcohol during their first trimester. Comparatively, women who didn’t drunk during their first trimester had only a 4.6 percent risk of having a preterm baby.

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Premature birth outcomes have been linked with a number of adverse health issues, including respiratory problems, feeding difficulties, increased hospital stays at birth and neurological complications.

“The conclusion is that… women who plan to get pregnant or are pregnant [should] avoid alcohol altogether,” Nykjaer said.

Because the study was a survey, Nykjaer noted that the participants may have underreported their drinking habits. Additionally, the researchers found that women who were most likely to drink during pregnancy were of white ethnicity, aged 35 and older, educated to degree level, and more likely to live in affluent areas.

“Yes, they’re more likely to drink, but we’re looking at relatively small intakes. More than two units a week isn’t binge drinking. It could be that these women enjoyed the occasional glass of red wine [while pregnant,]” Nykjaer said.

Because their findings looked at population risk, individual risk for mothers is most likely low, and pregnant women shouldn’t be too concerned if they have consumed alcohol. However, researchers emphasize that cutting out alcohol while trying to conceive and when pregnant is important for the baby’s development.

“Women don’t need any more confusing health messages out there; it’s really difficult for pregnant women and women trying to conceive. We think it’s safer to just abstain,” Nykjaer said.