Women who drink in pregnancy more likely to be middle class
Women who continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy are mostly Irish, middle class and have private health insurance, a leading obstetrician has revealed.
Dr Aoife Mullally, an obstetrician in the Coombe maternity hospital in Dublin, said nearly one in 10 women nationally continues to drink small to moderate amounts during pregnancy.
"They tend to be middle class women. They tend to be drinking small amounts, such as a small glass of wine or two, once or twice a week," she said.
In contrast, women who are public patients are more likely to abstain, although a small minority binge drink.
The Coombe, which sees a women from different backgrounds, has been leading the way in tracking the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Dr Mullally said: "Small levels are unlikely to be harmful - although we cannot say that for certain. One to two units once or twice a week is thought to be safe, but we don't know."
A baby exposed to alcohol in the womb is more prone to illness, physical problems, and learning and behavioural disorders.
Dr Mullally was involved in a major study of drinking patterns among pregnant women attending the Coombe between 2010 and 2011. It found around 80pc of women drank alcohol around the time of becoming pregnant, while about 10pc of women continued to drink after recognition of pregnancy.
However, Dr Mullally acknowledged that the majority of these women drink very small amounts.
Dr Mullally said: "When they come for their ante-natal visit at around 12 weeks we ask how much alcohol they drank prior to pregnancy and whether they are drinking during pregnancy.
"Women who tend to drink very heavily in pregnancy are in a small minority. They tend to be younger, heavy smokers, and from a lower socio-economic group.
She added:"The vast majority of women give up alcohol as soon as they are pregnant. That is very reassuring - and they have similar pregnancy outcomes to women who don't drink alcohol at all."
And she acknowledged: "People won't necessarily tell you the truth. Everyone under-reports their alcohol consumption".
Dr Mullally said the hospital has not followed up children whose mothers drank after maternity discharge to determine if it affected issues such as behavioural problems.
"We found an association between heavy drinking and babies being born before term."
She added:"I think we need a public health campaign on alcohol effects before and after the baby is born."
"If you don't know how many units you are drinking when you are not pregnant, you will not know what you are drinking when you are pregnant.
"Alcohol can affect the foetus all the way through pregnancy."
Earlier this month, women were warned that even half a glass of wine can cause a foetus to stop breathing and moving for as long as two hours.
Professor Peter Hepper of Queen's University in Belfast examined the effects of low-level alcohol exposure during pregnancy by using 18-week scans.