Is the latest advice on women and drinking over the top?

Women have been advised to stop drinking alcohol before they conceive.
Women have been advised to stop drinking alcohol before they conceive. Photo: Hero Images

By now, most expectant mums know about the potential dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant. Because of this, once a woman finds out she's carrying a baby, she's likely to set aside the booze.

After all, most mums agree that the risk of having a baby affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) far outweighs the need for her to drink.

The problem is that most women don't know they're pregnant until they've taken a test to find out, and most pregnancy tests can only tell you're expecting when you're already a few weeks along.

That means that if a woman only stops drinking once she's found out she's pregnant, she may have exposed her developing baby to many weeks of unwanted alcohol.

Those early few weeks of pregnancy are vital to a baby's development, and are a time when we should be protecting our babies from the possible damaging effects of alcohol, say American experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America.

Consequently, they have just issued a statement saying they believe women should stop drinking as soon as they come off contraception when hoping to fall pregnant.

According to the CDC, three in four women who come off birth control with the aim of getting pregnant don't stop drinking alcohol at the same time.

"Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant," said CDC principal deputy director Anne Schuchat.

"The risk is real," she says. "Why take the chance?" 

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The CDC experts warn that by not stopping drinking as soon as women stop birth control, more than three million women in America alone are putting their unborn babies at risk of the disorder.

So does that mean women contemplating pregnancy should stop drinking alcohol altogether?

"That's a tricky one," notes obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Kelly Griffin.

Rather than saying she believes all women trying to get pregnant should shelve their wineglasses, she says logic should prevail.

"I think it's sensible for women ceasing contraception to maintain a healthy lifestyle across the board," she says. This includes taking prenatal supplements (which include iodine and folate), having a healthy diet and regular exercise, and stopping smoking.

She also believes women planning a pregnancy should "moderate" their intake of coffee and alcohol at that time. "Once a pregnancy is confirmed, then it is best to cease alcohol," she says.

But what if you're already pregnant, and feeling bad about those drinks you had before you knew you were expecting?

While it's easy to listen to this advice from the experts and panic, Dr Griffin says you shouldn't be overly concerned.

"The guidelines state that women who drank alcohol prior to confirming a pregnancy should be reassured that the majority of babies suffer no harm," says Dr Griffin. "Likewise, the risk to the foetus from low level drinking is likely to be low."

However, if you're planning a pregnancy, you may choose to heed the experts' advice and stop drinking altogether.

After all, the message has only recently spread that women need to take prenatal vitamins, like folate and iodine, before knowing they're pregnant, to reduce the chance of health problems like spina bifida in their unborn babies.

With this new warning from the experts, the health message to women in the future may one day include advice to stop drinking alcohol at the same time.

While the guidelines are not yet clear about what you should do about drinking when you're planning a pregnancy, one thing is certain, says Dr Griffin.

"Each woman needs to be comfortable with her decision."