Monday 20 November 2017

Dr. Ciara Kelly: Irish women are drinking in pregnancy - but only to fit in

Irish women are drinking in pregnancy - but only to fit in

If we all drank a little less then it might be easier for Irish women to not drink during pregnancy
If we all drank a little less then it might be easier for Irish women to not drink during pregnancy
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

A recent study from Cambridge University, discussed at length in our media, revealed that Irish women are more inclined to drink alcohol while pregnant than their counterparts in other countries such as the US and Australia.

I'm not exactly sure why this is news. Irish non-pregnant women drink more than their counterparts in other countries too. As do Irish men, Irish adolescents, Irish elderly, Irish working classes and Irish middle classes. Need I go on?

In fairness to Irish women, the amount they drink in pregnancy tends to be very little. The average being one to two, small glasses of wine over the course of a week. Alcohol in large amounts during pregnancy causes damage to the foetus, resulting in a condition called foetal alcohol syndrome. It is less well understood what, if anything alcohol in small amounts does. And because we don't know where the safe cut-off is, and because we can't conduct experiments on pregnant women to find out, the guidelines therefore state that no alcohol should be consumed in pregnancy.

'But Irish babies are not routinely being born with obvious major intellectual or neurological defects, so perhaps it's all OK,' I hear you say. Perhaps Irish babies aren't being born with anything worse than a taste for alcohol?

Well, truthfully, you may be right. Despite us not knowing exactly where the safe cut-off lies the amount most Irish women consume does not appear to be negatively affecting their babies. And to be honest I'm loath to treat women like simple vessels and tell them how they should live their lives when there is little evidence to support the fact, that what they're doing is actually harmful.

Pregnant women here are behaving in line with our cultural norms, and unless we're willing to address them then I'm not sure it's fair to lambaste pregnant women who - especially in light of our relatively larger than average family sizes - may spend two to three years of their lives pregnant and denied pate, soft cheese, fresh mayonnaise and, if you are to believe recent studies, coffee, as well as a rake of other things.

If you throw in a period of breast feeding, after each child - then Irish women who have four kids can spend up to a decade of their lives living with lifestyle restrictions, as selfless perpetuators of our society, and indeed our species. And let's be honest, you never hear anyone thank them for it.

Personally, I doubt the medical profession, or indeed random strangers who love to pass judgement on others, are actually more concerned, about the well-being of these babies than the mothers themselves are. But it's nice and simple to be able to tell Irish pregnant women to do what no other section of Irish society is happy to do - which is to give up drinking.

I'm not for one moment, endorsing drinking alcohol in pregnancy - despite the fact that the vast majority of women's intake is low and not proven to be harmful. I'm merely pointing out how easy it is to hold other people up to standards that we've no intention of meeting ourselves.

The vast majority of Irish people drink in excess of what's recommended. Pregnant women are drinking far far less than most of us - yet we single them out for special criticism. Heaven forbid we address the fact that Irish pregnant women are just trying to fit in with the rest of us. Because this is a cultural issue.

In the US, the majority of women drink nothing in pregnancy. Here, the majority of women drink one to two glasses of wine per week. In parts of southern Europe pregnant women drink one to two units per day. We could make it a whole lot easier for Irish pregnant women to stop drinking if the rest of us drank a bit less.


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