Drinking and Conceiving, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader responds to our earlier note about the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome during early pregnancy:

I am one of the women who is offended by the CDC’s new guidance. Why? For one, the CDC statement reads as a Chicken Little “the sky is falling!” warning, when the limited studies that are available show that light drinking, even during the first trimester, is fine. Many many women don’t even learn that they are pregnant until end of the first trimester, or afterward, and go on to have healthy, happy babies. Not to mention the millions of babies born in the years when drinking and smoking during your entire pregnancy was considered normal, or the millions of children born in European countries where mothers drink wine throughout their pregnancies. Emily Oster, the author of Expecting Better, dives into many of these studies in her book.

On that note, Noah Berlatsky wrote a piece for us in March 2014 covering a recent study downplaying the conventional wisdom of total abstinence when it comes to drinking while pregnant. He also runs through some other Atlantic pieces via the following links, if you’re interested in further reading on the subject:

It’s well-established that binge-drinking or heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause serious developmental problems in children. However, there’s a good deal of controversy around moderate drinking. Some doctors recommend complete abstinence—and so do many helpful friends and strangers when pregnant women dare to lift a glass in public.

A recent study by Janni Niclasen, a post-doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen, adds to the literature suggesting that abstinence does not necessarily ensure better health for the child. On the contrary, after looking at a large population study by the Danish Health and medicine authorities, Niclasen found that “the children of mothers who drank small quantities of alcohol [a little more than one glass of wine a week] during their pregnancies show significantly better emotional and behavioral outcomes at age seven compared to children of mothers who did not drink at all.”

Niclasen attributes her findings to psychological and behavioral factors; mothers who drank during pregnancy tended to be better educated and healthier overall than those who didn’t drink. Niclasen insists that “this is not an invitation to pregnant women to drink alcohol,” and she’s also been quoted as saying, “I really believe that even a glass of wine now and again is really damaging.”

Certainly, as a researcher, her opinion matters—but at the moment, her contention that any alcohol has a major effect on child development appears to contradict the data she’s found. At the very least, it seems like a pregnant woman could look at this study and make an educated, reasonable assessment that drinking a glass of wine on occasion isn’t going to doom her child.

Another reader makes a great point about how the pill isn’t a panacea for countless women when it comes to preventing FAS:

As someone who has experienced difficulties with birth control, which has risk factors including blood clots, depression, and other diseases that are linked to hormonal manipulations, I find the CDC recommendations that much more maddening.