Local doctors say they still will counsel women to abstain from drinking during pregnancy despite new studies suggesting low to moderate amounts of alcohol may not have any adverse developmental effects on children five years later.
The United States has for years put warnings on alcohol products about the link of alcohol to birth defects collectively known as fetal alcohol syndrome. Doctors counsel pregnant women against the use of alcohol according to guidelines issued by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The five new studies by Danish researchers, published last month in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, said low weekly alcohol use (one to four drinks) and moderate use (five to eight drinks) had no significant effect on IQ, attention span or executive functions such as planning, organization and self-control in 5-year-old children. Neither did binge drinking, which was defined as having five or more drinks at one time.
However, the researchers found that having nine or more drinks per week was associated with lower attention span among 5-year-olds.
A drink was defined as being equal to 12 grams of pure alcohol. In the United States, a drink is considered to have 14 grams of pure alcohol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite their findings, the researchers said the most conservative advice for women is to abstain from alcohol because no safe level of use has been established.
Eugene Scoscia, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Allegheny General Hospital, and Hyagriv Simhan, an OB/GYN and maternal fetal medicine specialist who serves as medical director of obstetrical services at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, agree.
"The issue is not whether there's a link between alcohol and fetal alcohol syndrome," Dr. Scoscia said. "[It] is how much alcohol does it take. While this article suggests it is safe, we can't monitor how many drinks someone has [so] we tend to err on the conservative side -- no alcohol altogether."
Dr. Simhan said, "We have not identified any level of alcohol use that is safe, so in general we say avoid using alcohol when you know you are pregnant."
He also noted that the studies did not research the effect of alcohol during the mother's pregnancy on children older than 5.
The two doctors said the studies could be useful in reassuring some women who drank alcohol before they knew they were pregnant that they had not done any harm to their unborn child.
"It depends upon the nature of the use," Dr. Simhan said. "When I hear they didn't know they were pregnant and had a glass of wine, we provide reassurance. We would not expect a single dose to be particularly harmful. As for daily heavy use, in that circumstance, we have to look for birth defects. For most women, it would be the first scenario, and we'd provide reassurance."
Similarly, the doctors would not likely forbid a pregnant woman one drink for a special occasion.
"Let's put it this way: If a patient wanted one drink to celebrate something on an occasion I would tell her not to worry about it," Dr. Scoscia said.
"No one's ever asked me that," Dr. Simhan said. "I'd say what I said before: I can't say with 100 percent certainty that any alcohol use is safe. But ... I think I certainly wouldn't prospectively or retrospectively admonish a woman for a single celebratory drink."
Pohla Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1228.