Sunday 25 March 2018

'Pregnant women drink because they're confused about the risks'

As new research reveals Irish women drink more during pregnancy than other nationalities, experts say they are uneducated about alcohol.

Drinking while pregnant
Drinking while pregnant

Ailin Quinlan

Some mothers-to-be wouldn't dream of taking an antibiotic without first checking it was safe for their unborn baby - but they might enjoy a glass of wine because they don't understand the risk.

That's according to a GP and mother-of-four who believes that widespread ignorance about the actual risks posed by the consumption of alcohol to an unborn baby is one of the issues behind the findings of an international study into alcohol consumption by pregnant women.

Researchers found Irish mothers-to-be were more inclined to drink while pregnant than their counterparts in either the UK, Australia or New Zealand.

The problem is rooted in a mixture of ignorance and confusion, believes Cathy Foley, a family doctor in Kerry.

Foley points both to a belief that doctors may be exaggerating the dangers of drinking while pregnant - and public ignorance of the risk posed by alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Irish society's "blasé attitude" to alcohol has a significant impact on how consumption is viewed by some pregnant women, says the GP, whose fourth baby was born just three months ago.

Foley, who never drank alcohol during her pregnancies, says women don't have enough information on the topic.

"I believe women are possibly under-educated when it comes to the harm alcohol can cause in pregnancy.

"Ireland is so blasé about drink that we don't see alcohol for what it is. I think some women feel that doctors are overstating the case a bit - purely because alcohol is so acceptable and such a part of our lives.

"People are genuinely ignorant about the harmful effects of having even a moderate amount of alcohol in pregnancy," she says, adding that, as a result, some people assume that "you'd have to be an alcoholic to have a baby with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome".

Department of Health guidelines in Ireland advise total abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy.

In Dr Foley's clinic she routinely goes through the list of 'pregnancy don'ts' with mothers-to-be.

"They all agree, but what they do when they go home can be a different thing," she says, adding that although some pregnant women wouldn't dream of taking an antibiotic without checking that it was okay, they might have a glass of wine because they simply don't realise that even a small amount of alcohol is potentially harmful.

"The safest amount of alcohol to have in pregnancy is none. It's hard to justify drinking while pregnant," she says.

"I decided I didn't want to drink during my pregnancy, and this was a decision I made along with not eating anything which was unpasteurised."

When Joanne O'Donnell - currently expecting her second child - was pregnant with her first baby, she drew a line in the sand. She would not, she decided, drink any alcohol while she was pregnant.

"I didn't touch a drop during either of my pregnancies," says the 33-year-old Kerry woman, who says that while she enjoys a social drink with her husband or friends, her babies "came first."

O'Donnell was taken aback by the findings of the international study which showed Ireland had the highest rates of drinking both before and during pregnancy, and mothers-to-be here also scored highest for binge-drinking before and during pregnancy.

"I did a lot of research online (about alcohol consumption during pregnancy) and you get different opinions on it - for example, that a glass now and again does no harm, while another report says they don't actually know how much alcohol it takes to harm the baby.

"I just decided not to take the chance," says O'Donnell, who believes that there is a significant element of confusion about the situation among some mothers-to-be.

"There are different medical opinions, in that one doctor might say that the occasional glass of red wine or Guinness is okay, while another might simply say don't touch it," she says.

As a result, she says, mothers-to-be on a night out may be encouraged to listen to older sisters or family friends who say "one glass is fine".

"I think there may also be a situation where, if people are given an inch - say there is a big social occasion like a wedding - one glass might turn into a few," she adds.

Part of the problem, believes second-level teacher and mother-of-three Gillian O'Carroll Murphy, is that if people turn to the internet for guidance, they can find evidence to substantiate arguments both for and against the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.

O'Carroll-Murphy (37), who gave birth to twin boys just last Sunday and already has a three-year-old son, did not drink during either of her pregnancies.

"People may look it up on the internet and if they want to drink while pregnant they'll find research somewhere saying it's okay to do it," she points out.

"Maybe it's that people don't take it seriously, that they think maybe the warnings are being a bit exaggerated."

Irish Independent

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