PREGNANT women can have a small alcoholic drink a day without it harming the development of their children, a study has found.
Excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy is known to harm babies, causing a range of health problems from behavioural disorders and impaired IQ to facial disfigurement.
Consequently it is recommended that women should either avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy or have very little.
Its guidelines state that women who do chose to drink should consume no more than a medium-sized glass (175ml) of wine, two units, twice a week.
But Danish researchers have now found that drinking up to three times that amount appears to have no negative effect on children.
They decided to examine the issue because few studies have looked at the health effects on children of light or moderate drinking during pregnancy.
Their study, published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, followed 1,628 women and their offspring from pregnancy to the time the children were five.
The mothers’ were asked to assess their own drinking during pregnancy in interviews conducted at antenatal appointment, usually at about 17 weeks.
They were then categorised as abstainers during pregnancy; light drinkers (one to four drinks a week); moderate drinkers (five to eight); or heavy drinkers (nine or more).
For the purposes of the study, one drink contained 1.5 British units of alcohol - roughly that in a small (125ml) glass of medium-strength white wine.
They found that having up to eight small drinks a week had no effect on the five-year-olds’ IQ, attention span, self-control and ability to organise themselves.
Only children of women who consumed nine or more such drinks a week were affected, demonstrating lower attention spans.
Many women drink in their first few weeks of pregnancy before realising they are expecting.
Professor Ulrik Schiøler Kesmodel, of Aarhus University, Denmark, said: “We are not encouraging women to drink but we hope to reassure those who have been drinking in the early stages of pregnancy - maybe before they knew they were having a baby - that they don't need to worry about it. “
He added that he and fellow researchers were “really surprised” not to find any evidence of harmful effects in children among pregnant women who had been involved in binge drinking.
However, in this study women were classed as binge drinkers if they had drunk five or more small drinks on as little as one occasion.
Their classification meant a woman who had just two large (250ml) glasses of strong red wine, on a single evening, would be classed as a binge drinker.
Prof Kesmodel did admit that the children in their study should be checked at an older age, because neurological problems only became noticeable from about the age of five.
Patrick O’Brien, a consultant obstetrician, said the study was not a green light to drink freely in pregnancy.
He said: “These findings suggest low to moderate drinking has no significant effect on children aged five. However, this does not mean that women can use this as an excuse to indulge in more than the recommended amount in the UK.
“The Royal College Of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists advises that if a woman falls pregnant, she should abstain from alcohol.
“However, if she would like to have a drink, the current evidence shows that one or two units, once or twice a week, is acceptable after 12 weeks of pregnancy.”
The Danish study is the latest to indicate light drinking is unlikely to be harmful, although theirs appears to raise the ‘safe’ limit.
Two years ago researchers from University College London found children of women who drank up to two UK units a week were slightly less likely to have behavioural at five, than those of mothers who abstained during pregnancy.