Drinking While Pregnant: New Research Says It Doesn’t Hurt Children, But Should We Do It?

I’m sure for somebody, this is “good” news: A new study out of the UK suggests that pregnant women can consume one to eight alcoholic drinks a week without causing any developmental problems in their children.

Backed by funding from the Centers For Disease Control, Danish researchers studied more than 1600 pregnant women from their first antenatal visit then followed up by looking at the effects of alcohol on the IQ, attention span and self-control of their children at age five. What they found: low to moderate weekly drinking in early pregnancy had no significant effect on the neurodevelopment of the children at age five. There was no difference in IQ test results for kids whose mothers drank one to four drinks per week while pregnant, vs. children of mothers who had five to eight drinks per week while pregnant, vs. moms who abstained altogether, the research found.

Children whose moms consumed more than nine drinks per week while pregnant did, however, tend to have lower attention spans, the researchers added.

Of course, heavy drinking during pregnancy has long been linked to miscarriage, fetal alcohol syndrome and low birth weight, and pretty much every obstetrician and professional medical group will tell you that drinking liquor while pregnant is the No. 1 preventable cause of physical and cognitive birth abnormalities. And the researchers noted in a collection of papers published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology that their testing noted only noticeable—not subtle—changes in the development of the kids and did not track whether alcohol-related changes might become apparent later in their lives. But some doctors fear moms-to-be might view this as a “free pass” for drinking while pregnant.

“The danger of it is that people consider it definitive research and reassurance that any alcohol use, including binge drinking, during pregnancy is innocuous,” Janet Williams, a pediatrician at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, told NPR, adding that this new research prompts more questions than answers. “The safest conclusion is that no drinking causes no fetal alcohol effects.”


That, certainly, was what my obstetrician told me when I was pregnant with my two babies, and pretty much every, single book and website I poured through while my kids were in my stomach said the same. Only once did my OB suggest I have a drink, and that was the day I went into labor. I was nervous, scared and in a gang of pain; she knew the baby would come at any time but, because my water hadn’t broken yet, I wasn’t going to give birth at that very second. Her prescription: try, try, try to relax—and have a small glass of wine if that will help.

I admit: It sounded like a GREAT idea at the time. But, despite her assurances that it would not hurt my baby, I just couldn’t bring myself to have so much as a sip of an alcoholic drink. The safety of my baby was so much more important than my comfort and relaxation.

I do hope that this is what mothers-to-be and pregnant moms take away from this new study—that no matter how many research papers suggest it’s okay to have a few drinks while pregnant, ultimately, forgoing alcohol altogether is the safest bet to prevent developmental problems in your children. Period.


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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I couldn’t agree more!! I am a substance abuse counselor, and have seen first hand the effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

  2. I had alcohol during my pregnancies, and don’t feel guilty about it at all. I kept it to one glass of wine, perhaps once a week (until I couldn’t stand the taste about halfway through.) I thoroughly researched how alcohol passes into the placenta, and was convinced that the extremely small amount that passed was worth the risk. And my midwife said it was fine. Now, I understood there was a risk, don’t get me wrong. But my philosophy to parenting is to do what’s best for all of us in the family, not just one of us. If I were to only do what’s best for the baby, I would not have eaten sushi or hot dogs or brie cheese or gotten my hair dyed due to the risks. We engage in behavior every day that carries some risk, and it’s impossible to eliminate all risk, and I don’t think it’s even advisable.

  3. I think what is really important here is perspective. We are completely unwilling to allow women to have a glass of wine, soft cheese or a turkey sandwich because “OMG the Baby!” But as soon as you are admitted to L&D the locks come off the narcotics cabinet. This makes No sense. I drank during my pregnancy. No where near 8 drinks a week but a wine or beer here and there. I really feel that we need to start trusting women. This line really bothered me, “But some doctors fear moms-to-be might view this as a “free pass” for drinking while pregnant.”. Heaven forbid pregnant women feel free at all or in control of their bodies. I think it is time to stop infantilising women and using scare tactics and give them real information and let them make informed decisions.
    (As a note, while I believe in the value of natural birth I understand that it is not for everyone. I think that pain management in labor should give women informed options. But the IV and epidural pain medications do reach the baby’s system and do have effects during and after birth. A woman should be given all the information before hand and make her own decisions in managing her labor.)

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      “Infanitilising?” That’s an awfully strong word. For the record, when my OB-GYN and every book I read suggested that I refrain from drinking alcohol while pregnant to protect the baby, I did not feel like I was being treated like a child who was not in control of her body; I felt like I was being asked, as a mother-to-be, to consider the harmful effects that drinking alcohol would have on my child. If you felt like drinking wine and beer was cool while you were pregnant, that was, indeed, your right. But to denigrate mothers who CHOOSE to listen to their doctors and leave the liquor alone while pregnant is pretty unfair. So is assuming that women who choose to have pain management during delivery did so deaf, blind and dumb to the risks. I’m not sure about anyone else, but I do know that with my two babies, I did my research on pain management, asked my doctors a million questions about it, too, and made my decision from there.

      The beauty of both those decisions is that mothers ARE in control of their bodies and can make informed choices based on the myriad of info out there. This study was alarming to me, however, because it suggests that wholesale drinking—even occasional binge drinking—is totally cool when you have a baby in your belly. Maybe it is. But that’s certainly not the standard line that’s been touted by medical professionals. By a stretch. That’s news. And perhaps a cause for concern.

      • I thought what Megan meant by infantilizing was that the admonitions against moderate drinking during pregnancy are based in fear – meant to scare mothers-to-be rather than providing the best scientific data available, which has never said that moderate drinking is harmful to a baby. By trying to scare women, instead of treating them like adults who can make informed decisions, is infantilizing. Not women choosing to listen to their doctors, but the doctors not giving the complete information.

        • Gradmommy is correct. I was not saying that choosing to not drink while pregnant is infantilising. It is the use of scare tactics that bothers me. You may have felt respected by your OB. If so, fantastic and please circulate her info to other prospective mothers so they can have a similar respected relationship with their provider. I had a rather different experience with my first provider. We were not having a conversation about risks and benefits, she was giving absolutes that I knew were not based in facts. This is not uncommon in what I have heard from other women.
          As far as pain management, again I am glad that your provider listened to you and answered your questions. I also hope that the answers you were given were based in facts. That is not always the case. Many women are led to believe that there are no risks involved in pain medication during childbirth. As you know from your research this is not true. Can an informed woman choose to use pain medication in childbirth? Absolutely yes. Based on my goals in childbirth, a healthy birth w/o a C-section and successful breastfeeding, and what I felt were my personal risks, my sister had a protracted then stalled labor and C-section after an epidural, I chose to pursue an unmedicated birth. I have many more friends who have made very different choices and I respect that that was what was right for them and their families. However the statistics available for our current state of maternity care do show that a large number of women are not being heard by their providers and are not being given the option of true informed consent and refusal. (If the only answer your provider accepts is consent then it really isn’t a choice.)
          I am truly not trying to be adversarial, I just feel very strongly that pregnant women in the US are not being respected in their choices and do have their bodily autonomy threatened. I see the endless ‘You shouldn’t …” lists that American pregnant women are given to be a symptom of that.

          • Denene@MyBrownBaby

            I understood exactly what you said, Megan, and I appreciate your thoughts on this. But I really do think that just as you accuse doctors of an agenda, clearly, you have one, too. When I was pregnant, my only agenda—along with most moms-to-be—was to make sure that I was doing what I could to keep myself and my baby healthy. And yes, a part of that information gathering came from—GOODNESS!—an OB-GYN. Not every doctor is a money-sucking monster using scare tactics to keep women in the dark about their bodies. My OB-GYN was FANTASTIC. Her name is Hilda Hutcherson and she did a great job of explaining, answering questions, and giving me lots of great information—always with the understanding that, ultimately, it was up to me to decide what I wanted to do. In the case of drinking while pregnant, I chose not to. It just wasn’t any deeper than that.

            Now, I’ll be the first to agree with you that the maternity care system is screwy. My experience was far from nirvana. But I really do think you’re using this issue to make a pretty radical declaration about “many” doctors and the choices “many” moms are denied because there’s some radical system to keep women in the dark and rule their bodies. I just didn’t feel that during my pregnancy. At all. And if I’d have sniffed that out, I would have exercised my right—as any woman has the right to do—to find an alternative doctor.

  4. my parents adopted 3 little boys through foster care; one of those precious babies was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. now, i realize his bio mom probably drank way more than the 8 drinks or less/week in this study, but i’ve seen firsthand the devastation drinking during pregnancy can do. my little brother (ok, not so little anymore; he’ll be 20 this weekend) has ADD, learning disabilities, memory difficulties and a substance abuse problem. when he was 8, and my parents were carting him from one doc to another for one health or emotional issue after another, the only thing the professionals could guarantee was that he’d get worse before he got better. though the ship has sailed on my own baby-producing days, given the option, i would’ve done exactly as you did, denene: stayed far, far away from the liquor cabinet.

  5. Years ago, my mom’s OB ordered her to drink red wine during her pregnancy because she was anemic to the point of passing out. I’m glad to hear that it was OK and I’m normal after all these years.

  6. Alcohol has negative effects on adults. So, regardless any data that comes out saying it’s ok for pregnant women to drink, I’m not gambling with my child’s welfare. When you make the choice to get pregnant you’re agreeing to accept the responsibility that comes along with it. And one of those is making sure your baby is healthy by staying away from things that may be harmful.

  7. I don’t think drinking sometimes hurt the baby in some way, doctors say that sometime is good to get some wine.

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