I’ve long described pregnancy as a lengthy list of things you can’t do (or eat or drink). Of course, growing and nurturing a human being is a miraculous process, but let’s be honest: It’s also a buzz kill. From the moment any woman finds out she’s pregnant, she becomes bombarded with “no.” No sushi, no hot tubs, no jumping on trampolines, no caffeine, no deli meats, and above all, no alcohol. None. Not a single drop.
This zero-alcohol policy has long been touted by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and just last week the American Academy of Pediatricians released a new report on fetal-alcohol-spectrum disorder that likewise denounces any and all alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Said the paper’s lead author, “There is no known ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption.”
On its face, that statement may not seem controversial; after all, American culture has long since wised to the fact that binge drinking during pregnancy is dangerous. But, as Nora Calpan-Bricker pointed out at Slate, it also suggests “a more complex truth … It’s not a statement about something that we do know: that alcohol, even the occasional glass of wine, is definitively harmful to a developing fetus.”
Indeed, Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University and the author of Expecting Better, a critical analysis of standard recommendations during pregnancy, said there is a disconnect between the evidence on light drinking and the one-size-fits-all recommendation: “It is very clear that heavy drinking or binge drinking in pregnancy is harmful … [but] the evidence on light drinking does not show these effects.”
To Oster’s point, several studies indicate that the occasional drink during pregnancy doesn’t actually adversely affect children’s intellectual abilities or behavior. Moreover, a group of five Danish studies published in 2012 suggest “low and moderate weekly alcohol consumption in early pregnancy is not associated with adverse neuropsychological effects in children aged five.”
Clearly, researchers and doctors are not on the same page. Caught in the uncomfortable middle of this debate are the pregnant women who have done their homework and may want to indulge in a glass of wine, only to be shamed and judged for doing so. Like other hotly debated topics such as breastfeeding, the question of what pregnant women put into their bodies has become an extension of the so-called Mommy Wars, pitting women against each other because of their parenting choices.
“[T]here is a push in parenting toward self-sacrifice. As if doing something that you enjoy inherently means you do not love your baby, even if there is no evidence that this activity is bad for the baby,” Oster explains. “This applies to drinking, as well as things like breastfeeding, sleep training, and so on.”
During my first pregnancy, I followed my doctors’ orders to a proverbial “T.” I sacrificed much-needed caffeine, abstained from lunchmeat and under no circumstances would I even consider taking a sip of alcohol. I was every OBGYN’s dream.
Nonetheless, I recall walking into a restaurant while noticeably pregnant and having the waiter clear away my wine glass from the table without asking. This angered me; while I had no plans of drinking, that was my decision to make. I didn’t need—or want—a stranger to make that choice for me. The subtle judgment enshrined in such a simple act reinforced the fact that while pregnant, people I barely knew suddenly felt like they had ownership over my body and my choices regarding it.
Three years later, I became pregnant again. This time, I was admittedly more lax with all the pregnancy “rules.” I indulged in foods on the “do not eat” list without regret, enjoyed my daily cup of coffee and yes, even a few glasses of wine. And not just in the privacy of my own home. While in my third trimester, I savored a large glass of red wine over dinner with a friend. In fact, I made a point of instructing our waiter to leave the wine glass on the table and bring me the wine menu.
I’m sure people who saw me drink wondered, “Why take the risk?” Not that I need to justify that choice, but here’s why: I was stressed and exhausted from running after a hyperactive toddler. I was miserably huge and uncomfortable. As far as I’m concerned, I earned that damn glass of wine. And my nearly nine-pounds-at-birth son is none the worse for it.
Ultimately, unless you isolate yourself in a protective bubble and never leave your house while pregnant, you’re always taking some risk, whether it’s driving a car, walking down the stairs, or even enjoying some “fresh” air (hello, pollution).
The bottom line is that (the majority of) pregnant women are capable of making informed decisions, and shouldn’t be shamed for the choices they make—even if that means enjoying a glass of wine once in a while. As Oster said, “the women on this margin are not the ones we should be most worried about. We are wasting time arguing about this at the expense of making better policy that might actually help women—and children—who really need it.”