Craving a Beer During Pregnancy: How Much Is Safe To Drink?

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I really wanted a beer when I was pregnant. It was one of my more bizarre pregnancy cravings. So in an effort to slake this particular thirst, I embarked on a mission to prove that a little frothy beer wouldn't hurt my developing fetus.

I was dismayed to learn that no one, no medical literature or obstetrician, could justify my drinking a beer or alcohol of any kind.

The Consensus on Pregnancy Alcohol

The official take of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) is to abstain from alcohol before conception, and throughout pregnancy. The ACOG's factsheet regarding alcohol and pregnancy spells it out clear as day, "No drinks are safe."

"The bottom line is that abstinence is best," Charles Lockwood, MD, senior vice president at USF Health and dean of USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, said, "But brief binges early in the first trimester are likely to pose no risks." The ACOG concurs that the child developing inside you is unlikely to be seriously harmed if you drank before knowing you were pregnant.

Well, that was a relief to learn, since I drowned my sorrows in red wine after my misdiagnosed miscarriage at five weeks. But what about later in pregnancy? Is there any safe amount, or safe time to drink during pregnancy?

Apparently not.

So, Not Even a Sip?

"There isn't a lot of highly specific data to assess the minimal levels of alcohol that are safe in pregnancy," said Dr. Lockwood. "The prevalence of children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) among mothers that consume 1 to 2 ounces of absolute alcohol per day throughout pregnancy ranges from 10 to 50%. The effects are seen from exposure throughout pregnancy, not just in the first trimester. The Surgeon General and ACOG recommend complete abstinence—as do I."

FAS is the most severe effect of drinking during pregnancy and can cause serious birth defects. It can affect the child's central nervous system, facial features, and growth. A child with FAS can also have problems with memory, learning, attention span, vision, and hearing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"Certainly, exposure during the period between conception and the beginning of brain development—roughly a week before to two weeks after conception, poses no risk," added Dr. Lockwood.

This is a relief, since an informal survey of my pregnant friends reveals I am not the only one to have had something to drink surrounding my conception dates.

How Alcohol Affects the Developing Fetus

I was also interested to learn the term fetal alcohol spectrum disorders from the CDC, which refers to the range of disorders that can occur from alcohol consumption during pregnancy—everything from FAS, which can be identifiable by prenatal ultrasounds, to symptoms that appear years later, such as the learning disabilities and hyperactivity that characterize alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND).

And nobody knows what amount of alcohol can be safely tolerated by a developing embryo or fetus. It may depend on an individual woman's tolerance level or spacing drinks out over a week—it could be that drinking two ounces each day is worse than a big drink once in a while. But there is no definitive study that accurately calibrates the difference.

As Deirdre Lyell, MD, an associate division chief of Maternal-Fetal Medicine and Obstetrics at Stanford Children's Health, told me, "There is no known safe lower limit. While higher levels of alcohol can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome, it isn't clear what level of consumption will lead to problems such as fetal alcohol effects."

The Safest Choice: Abstaining From Alcohol

I was certain, as I embarked on this research, that I would find at least one medical professional who would tell me that the beer I crave could do no harm to my developing fetus, as long as it was consumed in moderation. But I found a unanimous consensus against even a small amount.

Therefore, I decided not to drink during the pregnancy.

In addition to the massive guilt I would have felt if my child suffered because of my inability to shun a good brew, the specter of caring for a baby who suffers from the effects of FASD was too great, not to mention the special treatment required for an older child with FASD.

It's not worth it—no amount, and at no time during pregnancy. So I toasted with sparking cider and looked forward to a healthy outcome for me and my fetus.

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