A dangerous pattern of alcohol consumption during pregnancy

Irish statistics on binge drinking worrying


The research finding that drinking during pregnancy is highly prevalent and socially pervasive in the Republic and other western countries is a significant public health concern. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy in Ireland was found to vary between 20 per cent and 80 per cent, and between 40 per cent and 80 per cent in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

Of particular alarm was the finding, in one of three studies reviewed in the BMJ Open journal, that more than 45 per cent of Irish women binge drink in the first three months of pregnancy. The first trimester of pregnancy is a crucially formative time for the foetus; drinking large amounts of what is essentially a legal drug represents highly risky behaviour. However even regular moderate drinking during pregnancy is a risk.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is the umbrella term used to describe the range of effects that can be caused by maternal alcohol exposure. Children with FASD show signs of behavioural, intellectual and physical problems as well as learning difficulties, poor language skills, poor memory skills and attention problems. As there are no studies linking harm to a baby with a particular threshold of alcohol consumption, complete abstention from drinking during pregnancy is the only safe and healthy choice. Nor are mothers immune from the side-effects of excessive alcohol consumption. Drinking patterns during pregnancy may reflect similar consumption when a woman is not expecting a child. Mothers of young children represent an increasing cohort of those presenting with liver cirrhosis.

A pattern of problem alcohol use during pregnancy may originate in teenage years. A study carried out on first-year students in UCC found that on an average night out women drank as much as men. Tackling drinking in pregnancy must be prioritised within the national substance abuse strategy. While health education is vital, controlling the minimum price of alcohol and restricting availability are equally important in achieving zero alcohol tolerance in pregnancy.