Should you drink when you're pregnant?

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India recently had her second child

"I didn't ever get drunk while pregnant; I just drank a couple of glasses of red wine in the evening, which is something I always do. It de-stresses you and relaxes you, and when I was pregnant with my second child, with a toddler to look after as well, this was terribly important. I despise this politically correct thinking that equates being pregnant with being ill."

Suzanne has had two children

"The first time I was pregnant, my doctor asked me if I was an alcoholic, and I said no. Then she said that by that she meant 'Would I drink more than two gin and tonics if I went out for the evening?', and I said yes. I didn't stop drinking, and a midwife in fact recommended drinking during and after pregnancy, which she said would help breast-feeding. The second time, attitudes had hardened, and people would come up to me in pubs and say 'Do you think you should be doing that?'"

Sara recently had her first child

"I tried not to drink, but I did. I started off with really good resolve, but by the end of the nine months I was not quite as good as I had been at the beginning. I would slip in a glass of wine at dinner, and then I might go and have half a pint of Guinness at the pub, because everyone says it's good for you. I never got drunk, but I don't think a glass or two occasionally does any harm, and I don't feel guilty about it."

There is no real medical consensus on the effects on a baby of drinking during pregnancy. Some doctors maintain that women can safely stick to their usual recommended alcohol intake of 14 units a week, but others are so strict as to order total abstinence.

But most doctors seem merely to encourage moderation. Malcolm Gillard, consultant obstetrician at London's Portland Hospital, says there is no evidence that alcohol causes abnormalities if the mother consumes moderate amounts. "But I do tell my ladies not to drink for the first 10 weeks, when the foetus is developing," he adds, "and I'd prefer it if they didn't drink spirits. A couple of glasses a wine a week is fine."

The pro-abstinence argument, says Gillard, was enshrined by the publication of Gordon Bourne's book Pregnancy, which has remained the expectant mother's bible for the last 20 years. But last year Gillard revised the book, replacing its tough line on drink with the advice outlined above. "The reason Bourne took this stance," he explains, "was the discovery at the time of a condition known as foetal alcohol syndrome, which causes the baby to be born almost alcohol-dependent. But now we know that a mother would need to drink absolutely huge amounts to harm her baby in this way".

Debate now centres on whether there is a safe drinking limit for pregnant women, and if so, at what level it should be set. Writer and social anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger claims that society has been "altogether too insistent on trying to force women into providing a perfect environment for their babies". American pregnancy manuals, she says, continue to be the worst offenders, ignoring new research in favour of promoting abstinence. Kitzinger believes that women have a right to clear, accurate information on which to make their own choices about alcohol consumption.

With this aim in mind, Midirs (the Midwives' Information and Resource Service) has prepared an "Informed Choice" leaflet, summarising the most reliable research evidence currently available. This states that pregnant women who drink less than 10 units per week are not at increased risk of giving birth to a damaged baby, provided that the drinking is spread over several days, and not drunk all at once.