80% of women drink alcohol while pregnant

Psychiatrist says two studies on Irish drinking levels conducted 10 years apart ‘are telling same story’

It is time to take action on drinking during pregnancy, with two studies 10 years apart telling the same story, psychiatrist Siobhán Barry said yesterday.

Dr Barry headed a seven-year study of more than 43,000 women attending the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital in Dublin that found over 80% of women drank during their pregnancy.

“It is 10 years since we finished collecting data for the study that showed over 40% of women were completely unaware that there was a risk of drinking while pregnant,” she said.

In an international study just published, Ireland emerged as the country with the highest rates of drinking both before (90%) and during (82%) pregnancy.

The research, published in the BMJ Open, also found Ireland has the highest reported binge alcohol consumption before (59%) and during (45%) pregnancy.

The study of almost 18,000 women who delivered babies in Britain, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand also found that smokers were more likely to drink during pregnancy. The researchers based their findings on three studies — the ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study; the ‘Screening for Pregnancy End-points’ and the ‘Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System’.

They found that alcohol use during pregnancy was highly prevalent but there was evidence that gestational alcohol exposure may occur in 75% of pregnancies in Britain and Ireland.

However, the amount of alcohol consumed dropped substantially for all countries in the second trimester, along with the level of binge drinking.

The research also found that non-white women were less likely to drink alcohol while pregnant, along with younger women, those with a higher education, obese or overweight women, and those with children.

Most of the women consumed alcohol at very low levels and the number of pregnant women who drank heavily in the three studies was small.

Nevertheless, given that the risk of light drinking were not fully known, the most sensible option was not to drink alcohol during pregnancy, said the researchers.

Dr Barry said there was quite an influx of non-nationals into Ireland between 2003 and 2004 and there was quite a marked difference in their alcohol behaviour compared to Irish and British women.

At the time, almost 90% of the women said they were aware that smoking could be harmful in pregnancy and many tried to change their smoking behaviour.

The study, funded by the Department of Health’s Health Promotion Unit, found that almost one in 10 pregnant women were consuming more than six alcoholic drinks a week. Just one out of five intended reducing or stopping drinking during their pregnancy.

Dr Barry said there seemed to be a vague message that one of two units of alcohol is not going to be dangerous during pregnancy but she thought it had to be more clear-cut — that there was no safe level.

Dr Barry said drinking heavily early in pregnancy increased the likelihood of it impacting on the brain, heart, and eyes of the foetus.

“People talk about foetal alcohol syndrome which occurs but is felt to be relatively rare and probably a more common condition is alcohol related developmental problems,” she said.

Dr Barry said the latest study was very welcome because it again raised concern about alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

“If two studies 10 years apart are giving very much the same message, it really is time to get the finger out,” she said.

In 2005, the Department of Health sought Dr Barry’s advice on updating their leaflet on alcohol and pregnancy.

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