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Study finds high pregnancy alcohol levels

July 6, 2015 • Ireland, News,

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Alcohol use during pregnancy is “prevalent and socially pervasive” in Britain and Ireland and a significant problem in Australia and New Zealand, health experts have warned.

A large-scale study across the four countries found that women across all socio-demographic groups were likely to drink while pregnant.

Ireland had the highest prevalence of any alcohol consumption pre-pregnancy (90%) and during pregnancy (82%), and the highest reported binge consumption before (59%) and during (45%) pregnancy.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge described the widespread consumption of even low levels of alcohol during pregnancy as a “significant public health concern”.

Their analysis of almost 18,000 women in Britain, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia found drinking during pregnancy was commonplace in all four countries.

The amount of alcohol consumed dropped substantially for all countries in the second trimester, along with the level of binge drinking.

Non-white women were less likely to drink, along with younger women, those who were more highly educated, obese or already had children.

Researchers said the findings show there is low adherence to alcohol guidelines advising complete abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy in Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.

Although most women who drink during pregnancy do so at low levels, those who drink heavily are putting their unborn baby at risk of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which affects their physical and mental development, the researchers claimed.

The team added that since most women who consume alcohol do so at lower levels, where the effects on the foetus are less well understood, the “widespread consumption of even low levels of alcohol during pregnancy is a significant public health concern”.

“The findings of this study have direct application to policy and practice,” the study authors concluded.

Although most women who drink during pregnancy do so at low levels, those who drink heavily are putting their unborn baby at risk of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which affects their physical and mental development, the researchers claimed.

“Although low proportions of women engaged in heavy drinking, the adverse consequences of heavy alcohol consumption during pregnancy on birth outcomes, long-term gross motor function, and social, cognitive, emotional and behavioural outcomes in offspring make heavy gestational alcohol consumption a high public health priority.

“Additionally, since most women who consume alcohol do so at lower levels where the offspring growth and development effects are less well understood, the widespread consumption of even low levels of alcohol during pregnancy is a significant public health concern.”

They added that healthcare professionals should advise pregnant women to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy, while dual targeting of smoking and alcohol consumption should potentially be increased.

“New policy and interventions are also required to reduce alcohol prevalence both prior to and during pregnancy,” they added.

Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas), said: “Although the authors describe these findings as raising significant public health concerns, the majority of women in Britain are drinking well within the existing recommendations in the second trimester.

“The prevalence of unplanned pregnancy in this country means many women may have an episode of binge drinking before they realise they are pregnant, but the monumental drop in reported binges by the second trimester suggests women alter their behaviour very quickly.

“Bpas regularly sees women so concerned about the damage caused by an episode of binge drinking before they recognised they were pregnant they consider ending what would otherwise be a wanted pregnancy. We would like to see greater reassurance to these women that they are extremely unlikely to have caused their baby harm.”

Louise Silverton, director for midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said: “The overall number of pregnant women who continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy is very concerning, as there is no evidence that any level of consumption is safe for the growing baby.

“This is why the RCM continues to advise women to abstain from drinking alcohol when pregnant or if trying to conceive. Drinking around conception and during the first three months may also increase the chance of having a miscarriage.”

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