The New York Times: Why Warning Pregnant Women Not to Drink Can Backfire

Harsh measures, or even threats of them, can lead to the avoidance of prenatal care entirely.

Credit Joe Fornabaio for The New York Times


In many areas of health policy, the best of intentions can lead to more harm than good. Such is the case with America’s approach to alcohol and pregnancy. The best evidence shows that punitive policies — such as equating drinking while pregnant as child abuse and threatening to involve child protective services — can dissuade women from getting prenatal care.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders refer to a collection of problems in babies and children. These include low birth weight; impaired growth; and problems in the heart, kidneys and brain. Children can have developmental delays, communication difficulties, learning disabilities and lower I.Q. Some of these last a lifetime.

It’s hard to know how many American children are affected. Studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that between 2 and 15 infants per 10,000 born in the United States have fetal alcohol syndrome, the most severe form of the disorders.

Some community-based studies that use the broader definition ofthe disorder have found more affected children, up to 5 percent.

We know that infants of women who drink alcohol in pregnancy may develop these disorders. The problem is what we don’t know. We don’t know the level of alcohol exposure in utero that could cause a child to develop these disorders. We don’t know if the timing of the exposure matters. We don’t know why some women who drink little might have a child who is affected, while some can binge drink during pregnancy and have a child with no apparent problems.

Because of this, most medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the C.D.C., recommend that women forgo alcohol during pregnancy. The only dose known to be “safe” is none, they say, and therefore women should not drink at all.

Many women in the United States comply with this directive. But a significant number do not.

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