Even one glass of wine can stop the foetus moving and breathing in the womb for up to two hours, an expert has warned.
Professor Peter Hepper from Queen’s University Belfast carried out a study, the first of its kind, looking at the effects of low-level alcohol exposure on foetuses in the womb through the use of 18-weeks scans on women who drank two and a half units of alcohol per week; the equivalent to a glass of wine (200ml).
Professor Hepper said even one glass of wine or small measure of spirits can influence the behaviour of the foetus in the womb.
“Our study found even a single glass of wine can have a potentially long-term effect on the foetus in terms of its behaviour in the womb. We observed foetuses that stopped breathing or moving for several hours. That’s not normal,” he said.
Irish women with higher levels of income and education are more likely to drink alcohol weekly during their pregnancy, a Growing Up in Ireland study found. “Some groups of women drink lower levels continuously while other women binge drink at weekends and don’t drink during the week,” he said.
“Binge drinking is potentially more harmful because there is more exposure to alcohol but I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that if you drink lower amounts of alcohol more regularly, it’s any less harmful or somehow more safe.”
Professor Hepper said very little research has been carried out on foetuses that have been exposed to alcohol anywhere in the world and said there is no such thing as a “safe level” of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.
“What we do know is that if you’re exposed to alcohol in pregnancy you may end up with foetal alcohol syndrome or disorders. If you don’t drink alcohol there’s absolutely no chance of your child having foetal alcohol syndrome and we know that a single glass of alcohol affects the foetus’s behaviour and its brain.”
Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is the umbrella term used to describe the range of effects that can be caused by maternal alcohol exposure. Children identified as suffering from FASD show signs of behavioural, intellectual and physical difficulties including learning difficulties, poor language skills, poor memory skills and attention problems.
“The reason for that is that we know that alcohol can have harmful effects on the baby. It doesn’t necessarily affect every baby but it does affect some so we don’t know which ones are going to be affected and which ones aren’t. We have to take the approach of advising women that alcohol is something you should not partake in during pregnancy because of the potential risks to the baby.”
Dr Coulter Smith said the potential harm to the baby due to the amount of alcohol can not be ascertained so women should abstain completely.
“It’s not all about the volume or the type of alcohol you consume; unfortunately some people may take small amounts of alcohol in pregnancy and their babies may be affected so harmful effects do not appear to be dependent on how high or low the dose of alcohol consumed is,” he said
“Drinking during pregnancy is not something we advise and we tell women they should stop drinking during pregnancy because we don’t know what the safe level of alcohol is so you’re better off not to take any,” he said
“It’s not unusual for a woman to be at a party in the early stages of pregnancy or before they miss a period to have gone out for an evening and have had something to drink. However once they are aware they’re pregnant we would advise they should abstain from alcohol,” he said.
Department of Health guidelines state: “Cutting down or stopping alcohol while trying to get pregnant protects your baby. Continuing to drink, even in small amounts, when you are pregnant puts your baby at risk. The more you drink the greater the amount that is passed on to your baby.”
Professor Hepper said guidance given to women during pregnancy can vary which can lead to confusion.
“The really big problem is that there is no consistent message being given to women anywhere. The advice varies and the amount of alcohol varies – that’s the problem. In the absence of any particular message, women can be unsure of what to do,” he said.
“There is talk of a safe level of alcohol to drink during pregnancy but very little facts and evidence to back that up. The only safe level of alcohol to drink during pregnancy is zero,” he said.