If you've been hearing buzz about, well, getting buzzed while pregnant, here's why: A recent study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology says that low to moderate drinking throughout pregnancy didn’t alter kids' IQs. The researchers looked at 1,628 women, with the average age of about 30 years old, half of whom were first-time mothers. (Also interesting: 31 percent admitted to smoking while pregnant, too.) The authors of the study had the women report how often they were drinking: low was considered one to four drinks per week, moderate was deemed five to eight per week, and binge drinking was defined as five or more in a single occasion. The researchers then followed up with the subjects five years later and administered IQ tests to their 5-year-old children.
According to the study: “There were no significant effects on test performance in children of mothers drinking up to eight drinks per week, compared to children of abstaining mothers. However, there was a significant association between maternal consumption of 9 or more drinks per week and risk of low overall attention score.” Despite their findings, the authors still said that abstaining from alcohol is recommended. “More research is needed to look at long-term effects of alcohol consumption on children," they wrote. "The best advice is to choose not to drink; however, small amounts have not been shown to be harmful.”
But hold up before you reach for that pinot, pregnant women. The doctors we spoke to say that by no means do these findings mean you should go crazy at happy hour on a regular basis. First off, Jonathan Lanzkowsky, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist in New York City and clinical instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai School of medicine in NYC, points out a few possible flaws in the study: The small number of women included, as well as the means by which the researchers gauged how much those women are drinking (it was self-reported, which means the accuracy could be off), and not knowing the volume of the alcohol (big pour? little pour?) in each drink.
What's more, it's difficult to determine the actual effects of the alcohol. “Unavoidably, this is an observational study, so only associations, not causes, can be determined,” says Margaret Long, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “Lower levels of drinking are not clearly associated with adverse effects, but this does not absolutely guarantee that alcohol is harmless, or that the different groups may well not be the same to begin with. So, it's more difficult to determine the actual effect of the alcohol exposure versus other factors."
Here's where doctors and the study's authors agree: drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, which can be the cause of birth defects such as low IQ, learning disabilities, and physical abnormalities. “It is crucial to say that I would not suggest — nor do I think any doctor would — that their patients alter their behavior due to the findings of one study. Just because this suggests that low to moderate drinking might be okay, it doesn’t mean the benefit outweighs the risks,” says Lanzkowsky. “What we do know is that alcohol is a teratogenic, which means it causes malformations of an embryo or fetus. What isn’t entirely clear in the medical community is exactly how much alcohol, at what volume, causes it — or why one woman and child can be affected by it more so than another.” He does add that a doctor may say it's okay to sip on a glass of wine here and there, especially after the first trimester; however, the key is knowing where to draw the limit.
Still, in most cases it's best to stay dry. “Alcohol is not required for pregnancy, and exposure is known to cause harm. I agree with the authors that the most conservative recommendation is to completely abstain from alcohol in pregnancy, as alcohol-related fetal damage is lifelong and completely preventable,” says Long. “This study should not be taken as an invitation to drink in pregnancy, since even doubling intake from one to two servings of alcohol could be significant. Additionally, some women are at higher risk of adverse fetal effects than others.” The bottom line: if you're pregnant, go for a Shirley Temple, not a Shiraz.