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Pregnancy and alcohol: education and support vital

Photo: Education and support vital during pregnancy
The National Drug Strategy Household Survey revealed that significant numbers of women continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy.

In fact, 44.4 per cent of pregnant women said they consumed alcohol during pregnancy, which equates to around 75,000 Australian women per year. Further, 25 per cent of women said they continued to drink after finding out they were pregnant.

Interestingly, there are specific cohorts of women who are more at risk of continuing to drink alcohol during pregnancy, including women who are older (over 36 years) and those with a higher household income.

Surprisingly, 90 per cent of women under 25 stopped drinking once they became aware of their pregnancy, compared to only 50 per cent for those aged 36 and older.
This is despite the fact that exposure to alcohol during pregnancy may lead to adverse outcomes such as miscarriage, low-birth weight and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

So why are so many pregnant women continuing to drink?

Senior midwife and author Kathy Fray said while we know alcoholism during pregnancy is harmful to the fetus, there are no conclusive studies regarding moderate or mild alcohol consumption.

“No university ethics committee is likely to approve a study designed to work out what level of alcohol is harmful to an unborn baby, and women would not volunteer to participate in such a study.

“What I can tell you is that scientifically there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

“We know all alcohol in the maternal bloodstream crosses the placenta into the fetal bloodstream, and many women are still drinking in early pregnancy not realising they are pregnant.

“I simply say, ‘There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. We don't know if moderate or mild consumption is okay. It might be okay, but science does not know for sure either way,’ the rest is up to the mother to decide.

“To be fair, we also can't say for absolute certainty that ultrasound scans are safe in pregnancy, but we do them anyway.

“Then, there's being in a vehicle. We certainly do know that it’s unsafe for a fetus, statistically, if an expectant mother is driving or a passenger in a vehicle, but we don't stop pregnant mums from getting into cars.

“It is a tricky situation, that's for sure,” said Ms Fray.

Jane,* a mother of four, said she abstained from drinking alcohol during her first pregnancy at a public hospital as the advice on lifestyle choices was strict.

“I was super vigilant with the first, ate restrictively and walked daily.

“I had gestational diabetes, and she (the baby) was sick for the first three weeks and then quite a bit as a baby and toddler.”

Jane said it was a different story with her last three pregnancies, which were delivered in a private hospital.

“It was much more relaxed. 

"I was encouraged to be moderately active and eat healthily, but my obstetrician told me to go home and have a gin and tonic if I wanted to.

“By the time I had number four, I was very relaxed.

“I was happy to have a drink when I felt like it, which wasn't that often, and eat all the forbidden foods as part of a healthy diet, and she's the healthiest to date.

“That said, all of my kids are healthy and happy, and do not have any significant concerns with their health or otherwise.

“I remember having a conversation with a doctor once whose sister was pregnant, and he said there was no reputable evidence to suggest that drinking alcohol in moderation during pregnancy would cause any harm.

“He stood with his sister while she had quite a few drinks while pregnant,” said Jane.

In a FARE Alcohol Poll (2018), just over four in ten (46%) Australian women who have been pregnant said that a health professional advised them that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption while pregnant.

Obstetrician Dr Joseph Sgroi said no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy and advises patients that the risks include miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight, congenital deformities and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

“I recommend all my patients stop drinking before they even try to get pregnant when this is an option.

“When a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy the baby can suffer from physical and brain damage, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

“This is a lifelong condition and has major impacts such as learning difficulties, behavioural issues, mental illness, as well as drug and alcohol problems. 

“The effects of FASD may not be seen at birth, it can be diagnosed in children, young people and adults and people with FASD have lifelong problems,” said Dr Sgroi.

If women don’t understand the effects alcohol can have during pregnancy, Dr Sgroi advises that education and counselling are vital.

“There is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and for that reason, I would advise anyone considering this option to seek further information and counselling from their GP.”

Information and support for pregnant women

Research by FASD shows that Australian women would be less likely to drink alcohol during pregnancy if their partner or spouse also stopped drinking.

As a result, the Pregnant Pause initiative was established to encourage pregnant women to seek support from their loved ones when abstaining from alcohol during pregnancy.

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline 1800 882 436

NOFASD Australia

National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline 1800 250 015

The National Health and Medical Research Council’s Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol

Australian Breastfeeding Association  1800 686 268

Lifeline 13 11 14

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.