Pregnant women, partners, family and friends, and health professionals all need to understand the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, the effects it can have on the developing baby and how this impacts on brain development and health and well being throughout life.
In the USA, alcohol consumption during pregnancy is recognised as the leading cause of prenatal brain damage.
There are many social factors that have been shown to affect a woman's likelihood of drinking alcohol during pregnancy:
- lack of knowledge about the effects of alcohol on the fetus
- lack of convincing evidence that the occasional drink is harmful
- having a partner or friend who drinks
- peer pressure, particularly on special occassions such as birthdays, weddings, New Year's Eve
- lack of support from partner, friends and family
- living in a family or community tolerant of heavy drinking
- social isolation & living in remote communities
- stress, domestic violence, loneliness which may result in self-medicating with alcohol
While poverty and unemployment may be contributing to drinking in some populations, Australian research has found that in mainstream public antenatal care, higher income and tertiary educated women were 2-4 times more likely to drink alcohol throughout pregnancy than women with only secondary school education.
The risk of harm from alcohol is hard to predict. Factors such as the mother’s age, general health, medical conditions, genetics, stress, other drug use and smoking, and body composition can influence blood alcohol levels and hence the risk of harm to the baby.
Australian research has reported most women of child-bearing age want their health professional to ask about alcohol use in pregnancy, to give advice, and to advise them not to drink alcohol during pregnancy.
It is important that health professionals do not judge/blame women who drink in pregnancy, but rather provide advice, support and referral to services who can help. Blaming women may only make them less likely to talk about their drinking and make use of these services, losing a golden opportunity to improve the health of the mother and baby.