Expectant mothers in Ireland drink more than pregnant women in Australia, New Zealand, or the UK, and almost one third binge drink in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.
These are among the stark findings of an international study examining Alcohol Consumption in Early Pregnancy, led by researchers at University College Cork.
The study found almost double the number of pregnant women in Ireland and the UK (65%-80%) consumed some alcohol in pregnancy compared to the figures in Australia (38%). In New Zealand, the figure was 53%.
Ireland had the highest levels of alcohol consumption in pregnancy of all six centres in the study, which included 5,628 healthy females who gave birth between Nov 2004 and Jan 2011 in Auckland, Adelaide, Cork, London, Leeds, and Manchester.
The senior author of the study, Louise Kenny, the professor of obstetrics at UCC, said the finding in relation to Irish women was “surprising and disappointing” given repeated public health warnings about drinking while pregnant.
Of the 1,774 women recruited to the Irish branch of the study, four out of five said they drank some alcohol in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. One in five reported drinking moderate to heavy amounts, while 31% admitted to two or more binge-drinking episodes, compared to just 4% of women in New Zealand. Binge drinking was defined as six or more alcohol units in one session.
While the findings do little to diminish our inglorious reputation as a nation of drinkers, there is some comfort for the unborn babies. Surprisingly, for women pre-disposed to having a small-for-gestational-age baby or a baby with reduced birth weight, pre-eclampsia (a condition characterised by high blood pressure), or spontaneous pre-term birth, drinking in the first 15 weeks does not alter the chances of this happening.
However, Prof Kenny said: “The potential for neurocognitive dysfunction remains one of the single most important reasons pregnant women need to avoid alcohol intake during pregnancy and this paper highlights an important gap between health care provider’s advice and what actually happens.”
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