04.04.13 Parenting

Alcohol and Pregnancy: It’s Your Choice

Alcohol and Pregnancy: It’s Your Choice

BY Dr. Peggy Drexler

30-year-old Jennifer was pregnant with her second child when she stopped by her neighborhood liquor store to stock up on wine for a birthday party she was throwing her husband. The clerk, she remembers, looked at her with raised eyebrows, and then refused to make the sale. “I told him the wine wasn’t for me personally, but that it was none of his business besides,” says Jennifer. “He still said he needed to call his manager. He was visibly disgusted.”

Throughout the second and third trimesters of both pregnancies, Jennifer did, in fact, enjoy what she calls a ceremonial half glass of Pinot Grigio every Friday. “It was just something to look forward to, and sometimes I didn’t even finish it,” she says, adding that her doctor had given her the okay. But she pretty quickly learned not to drink in public. “I knew people were out there judging—or, worse, feeling compelled to actually say something,” she says. “The next table over would be whispering and not bothering to hide it. A waiter once refused to even show me the wine list. I just felt like I had a big target on my face.”

Until the early 1970s, moderate drinking while pregnant was both common and, for the most part, unquestioned. Many share stories of how their own mothers drank or smoked throughout their pregnancies, a cultural standard revisited in television shows like Mad Men, in which a very pregnant Betty Draper is seen smoking in the maternity ward. In 1973, however, a University of Washington study identified a group of physical and mental birth defects caused by drinking alcohol, together now known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS.

Though studies showing that FAS was a very rare outcome of largely severe alcoholism emerged as early as 1980— with numbers never rising over 1 case in 1000— FAS as a notion was transformative. According to a 1999 report published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, FAS was key in turning excessive drinking from a moral (and largely private, family) concern to a viable public health matter, and by the 1990s was widely associated with child neglect and abuse, poverty, rising crime, and mental illness. In 1990, Wyoming became the first state to charge a drunk pregnant woman with felony child abuse.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s official position since 1981 has been for pregnant women to abstain from drinking completely, and alcohol consumption among mothers-to-be declined throughout the ‘80s and into much of the 1990s. But now those numbers are changing, and women like Jennifer are becoming ever more common. Recent Centers for Disease Control findings show that non-binge drinking— that “every now and then” glass of wine or two— among pregnant women has been increasing steadily since 2002. According to the CDC, the highest increase of women who drink while pregnant has been among college-educated women between 35 and 44.

In part, this is because studies keep coming out showing, in some form or another, that drinking while pregnant is safe. Like one published in June in the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reporting that consuming up to nine drinks in one week, and even as many as five in one sitting, did not have any significant negative cognitive effect on kids five years later. This study followed an earlier one published in the International Journal of Epidemiology that stated not only could pregnant women safely drink a glass of wine or two per week, but that their children would actually perform better three years after birth than those of women who chose not to drink at all. And in Europe, of course, where the perception, at least, is that pregnant women regularly drink and smoke—though, in fact, the official position on drinking in France is abstinence throughout pregnancy—birth defect rates are lower than those in the U.S.

So if science is telling us that drinking while pregnant is okay, why do we continue to judge the woman with the outstretched belly sipping from a glass of Merlot? Turns out, it’s not only right wing Republicans questioning a woman’s control over her own body, is it? Drinking during pregnancy is just one example. In fact, modern mothering is chock full of judgments, starting with how we conceive to how we act and what we eat while pregnant, and continuing after that, including how we choose to give birth and whether or not we decide to breastfeed.

This summer, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg banned free baby formula in city hospitals in order to encourage new moms to breastfeed (after much uproar, he modified the decision to make formula available, but still harder to get). On the flip side, who can forget the uproar over the Time magazine cover featuring the breastfeeding mom who, so many declared, had “gone too far”? Moms, it seems, have a hard time winning.

Which is why despite the studies that seem to indicate low levels of drinking during pregnancy is perfectly fine— as are moderate amounts of caffeine and even raw fish— as a whole we continue to judge women who opt to have that occasional glass of wine— or coffee or sushi. We’re so fully entrenched in the age of over parenting—having opinions, and voicing them, about how other people raise their kids that, it seems, we can’t help but start in before the baby is actually born. And as the only ones who can carry a child, women bear the brunt of this judgment. We say we’re in support of a woman’s right to make choices, but are we?

This is not a call to drink while pregnant, or to be careless in any way. We know much more now than our own mothers did, and that’s an advantage. But years of experience studying gender and working with families have shown me, time and again, that mothers get a bad rap. This can create needless fear, anxiety, and self-doubt. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the tendency to assign blame, constantly monitor, and voice our every opinion about the choices other mothers make. After all, isn’t the prospect of having a baby daunting enough?

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, author, speaker, and a regular featured contributor to a range of publications and Web sites – from The Huffington Post to Psychology Today to HelloGiggles. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Peggy has spent her career studying the magic and mysteries of families. Her recent book: Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers And The Changing American Family, explores the powerful – and sometimes surprising – connection between dads and a new generation of independent, accomplished women. Peggy’s bestselling book, the highly acclaimed Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men, is a seminal work in the social sciences. It offers an illuminating look at how single mothers by choice, chance and circumstance and two-mother lesbian families are raising happy, healthy and masculine young men. The book was nominated for the Books for a Better Life award and the Lamda Literary award. Peggy can be found on  Facebook, Twitter @DrPeggyDrexler and on her Website.

Comments

  • Lee

    I agree in part with the article. I agree that there is far too much judgement thrown in the direction of pregnant women and mothers with new babies. Facebook shaming, snide twitter comments, and the overt “whisper” that’s loud enough to hear. My issue with the article stems from my experiences as a teacher of “at-risk” students. Over the years I have taught a number of students that have been diagnosed with FAS. Like ASD, FAS affects each child differently and for some the syndrome can be on immovable obstacle that stands in the way of the child achieving educational success. In all the research that I have read I have never come across a guideline for alcohol consumption to avoid FAS. Some mothers claim they barely drank at all while they were pregnant. My point is, why risk it if you don’t have to? I found it interesting that the age group most likely to drink is also the age group most likely to face complications, “older” moms. My wife and I have two beautiful healthy children and I’m extremely thankful for that. She and I chose, together, to give up drinking while she was pregnant. Would a beer have killed us after doing yardwork? Or a caesar with brunch? Probably not. But, our attitude was “why risk it?” To me watching our children develop physically and cognitively is more delicious than any glass of wine could ever be.

  • Erica

    Drinking while pregnant, even a small ammount (one documented case of full blown FAS from a woman who only once in her pregnancy drank communion wine at church).

    Spend 5 minutes with anyone who has FAS, FASD, or anyone on the spectrum and your would NEVER touch a drink again during child bearing years without protection. Have you ever met someone in other wine dominate countries who lack social norms distinction, could drive you up the wall, or simply has difficulty functioning with life, well look no further than a wine (alcohol) drinking momma and you’ll have your answer.
    It is simply NOT worth the risk of sentencing your children to a life of external brain dependence simply because YOU cannot drink a glass of water for 9 months of your 18250 days of childbearing years. You need something to look foraward to on a Friday night, try a healthy babies cry and not one that screams in pain because its brain lacks the ability to sooth itself because of the damage done to its brain while it was developing in the womb of its Mother.

    No judgement to women or their rights for choices or their rights to their own body, but NO ONE can understand justification for instant gratification when a whole life is altered because of one decision.

    If pregnant Mothers took the time to google all the permissions in medical articles they could find so that they could indulge guilt free, they could also google FAS and read what they could potentially be sentencing their child to have a life of, then see how thirsty they are.

    • angie

      Erica, did you read this part of the article?
      “In part, this is because studies keep coming out showing, in some form or another, that drinking while pregnant is safe. Like one published in June in the International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reporting that consuming up to nine drinks in one week, and even as many as five in one sitting, did not have any significant negative cognitive effect on kids five years later. This study followed an earlier one published in the International Journal of Epidemiology that stated not only could pregnant women safely drink a glass of wine or two per week, but that their children would actually perform better three years after birth than those of women who chose not to drink at all. And in Europe, of course, where the perception, at least, is that pregnant women regularly drink and smoke—though, in fact, the official position on drinking in France is abstinence throughout pregnancy—birth defect rates are lower than those in the U.S.”
      We all know how our parents generation drank while pregnant, and ‘we all turned out ok…’ And I have absolutely no regret or shame in having a glass of wine once a month or so while pregnant. My kids really are just fine. Great, even. Because I do not believe you can get FAS from having one drink when you’re pregnant, or even a drink every week. I think FAS develops when the pregnant mother drinks regularly and, in all likelihood, heavily.
      Like everything in life, this is not an all or nothing issue. Can we please just be moderate, use common sense and give each other a break?

  • carol

    Hi, i would just like to add, and some people might not like this but its the truth, my sister has a child with FAS, but the funny thing is , she has NEVER, had a drink in her life, infact she dispises alchohol, so how is this possible? Also i know a women who is basickly a total alchoholic and she uses drugs on a regular basis, her child is now 10 and he is a genius, i ,mean this kid is really clever and his brilliant at maths. I dont get it and no one can explai this to me.could it be that maybe if the father was a heavy drinker, thatbit might have been passed down through dna frombthe dad, instead of the mother? That if the mother drinks in moderation that it will have no effect on the child because the dna supply from the dads side already determined the fact?? Thanks

Every week in your inbox!

  • Exclusive notes and videos from Amanda de Cadenet.
  • Early access to our Limited Space Workshops.
  • Amanda’s Favorites and Special Offers shared with you weekly.
  • Exclusive notes and videos from Amanda de Cadenet.
  • Early access to our Limited Space Workshops.
  • Amanda’s Favorites and Special Offers shared with you weekly.
Subscribe Now

to receive our newsletter every Tuesday.

Sign up here for my Weekly Newsletter and Exclusive Updates: