Mums-to-be here are the 'biggest drinkers'
IRISH mothers-to-be are drinking significantly more during pregnancy than women in other countries.
But they are not increasing their odds of having a smaller baby, high blood pressure or a premature birth.
However, crucially, new research did not look at the effects of alcohol on the developing baby's brain and whether it increases the risk of hyperactivity and slow learning.
An international study looked at the drinking patterns of 5,628 women during the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, including consumption by 1,774 pregnant women in Ireland.
Irish women were the biggest drinkers, but it found alcohol consumption in early pregnancy did not appear to adversely affect some conditions.
These include the baby's weight, pre-eclampsia – a condition that can be life-threatening for the mother if left untreated – or spontaneous pre-term birth.
The Department of Health warns pregnant women to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy because of the potential brain damage it can cause the unborn baby, leading to a condition known as foetal alcohol syndrome.
The newly published study was conducted by researchers funded by the Health Research Board and led by the College of Medicine and Health in University College Cork (UCC).
Lead researcher Louise Kenny, Professor of Obstetrics in UCC, stressed the potential for damaging the baby's brain remains one of the single most important reasons for pregnant women to avoid alcohol intake.
She said the research was conducted with the principal aim of developing screening tests to predict which babies would be small for their gestational age, would develop pre-eclampsia in the mother and to determine the risk of spontaneous pre-term birth.
However, the findings unearthed worrying levels of drinking among pregnant Irish women when compared with their counterparts in Australia and New Zealand.
Eight in 10 of the 1,774 women recruited in Ireland had drank some alcohol in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.
And one in five reported drinking moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol during that time.
Around 31pc admitted two or more episodes of binge drinking, compared to 4pc in New Zealand.
Overall 65pc-80pc of women in the UK and Ireland consumed some alcohol in pregnancy, compared with 38pc in Australia and 53pc in New Zealand.
The 5,628 women were surveyed in Cork, Auckland, Adelaide, London, Leeds and Manchester.
The findings, which were published in the journal 'Obstetrics and Gynaecology', showed that of 5,628 participants, 1,090 (19pc) reported occasional alcohol consumption; 1,383 (25pc) low alcohol consumption; 625 (11pc) moderate alcohol consumption; and 300 (5pc) heavy alcohol consumption.
"Overall, 1,905 (34pc) participants reported binge-alcohol consumption in the three months before pregnancy, and 1,288 (23pc) of the participants reported binge-alcohol consumption during the first 15 weeks of pregnancy," Prof Kenny said.
Binge-alcohol consumption was defined as six or more alcohol units in one single session.