A high level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy has been reported by an international birth study led by researchers in Cork who found Ireland had the highest proportion of drinking during pregnancy.
The study found 80 per cent of women in Ireland drank at some point in their pregnancy compared to 65 per cent in the UK, 38 per cent in Australia and 53 per cent in New Zealand. A follow-up study will look at the situation in other European countries.
Eighty per cent of the 1,774 women recruited to the Irish part of the study had consumed some alcohol in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. More than 20 per cent reported drinking moderate to heavy amounts of alcohol at 15 weeks of pregnancy, while 31 per cent of women in Ireland admitted to two or more episodes of binge drinking in the first 15 weeks, compared with just 4 per cent of women in New Zealand.
Prof Louise Kenny, director of the Irish Centre for Fetal and Neonatal Translational Research and chief author of the study, said she was shocked at the high rate of alcohol use in the group as it was in stark contrast to the standard advice worldwide to avoid alcohol during pregnancy, particularly binge drinking.
"We were struck by the high level of alcohol use in these pregnant women and the rather startling levels of geographic variation we found between the countries involved. I was quite shocked that 20 per cent of women in Ireland reported moderate to heavy drinking at 15 weeks of pregnancy when the standard advice is that it is best to avoid alcohol altogether as it is not known what is a safe level," she said.
The Health Research Board-funded research was conducted as part of the major international project Screening for Pregnancy Endpoints (Scope). The principal aim of Scope is the development of screening tests to predict small-for-gestational-age neonates, pre-eclampsia, spontaneous preterm birth or reduced birth weight neonates.
The research involved 5,628 healthy female participants in Ireland, Britain, Australia and New Zealand who had given birth between November 2004 and January 2011. The findings have just been published in the Obstetrics and Gynaecology journal.
Of the 5,628 participants, 1,090 (19 per cent) reported occasional alcohol consumption, 1,383 (25 per cent) low alcohol consumption, 625 (11 per cent) moderate alcohol consumption, and 300 (5 per cent) heavy alcohol consumption. Overall, 1,905 (34 per cent) participants reported binge alcohol consumption in the three months before pregnancy, and 1,288 (23 per cent) of the participants reported binge alcohol consumption during the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The research indicated that alcohol consumption in early pregnancy did not appear to adversely affect conditions like small-for-gestational-age neonate, reduced birth weight, pre-eclampsia, or spontaneous preterm birth.
However, Prof Kenny said it was important to state that this study did not evaluate the association between alcohol consumption in pregnancy and long-term neurocognitive outcomes of children exposed as foetuses to alcohol.
“The potential for neurocognitive dysfunction remains one of the single-most important reasons for pregnant women to avoid alcohol intake during pregnancy and this paper highlights an important gap between the advice of healthcare providers and what is actually happening.”