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‘Mothers who binge drink don’t harm unborn baby’

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What did the papers say?

The media reported that there was little evidence that binge drinking harmed unborn babies, in spite of tough government guidance against drinking during pregnancy.

What did the research show?

Researchers carried out a systematic review of observational studies involving pregnant women or those seeking to become pregnant, published between 1970 and 2005. From more than 3,500 papers, they narrowed the review down to 14 relevant studies.

They searched for adverse outcomes including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects, and growth or development problems. The authors said they found no consistently significant effects of alcohol on any of the outcomes they looked at.

They noted, however, that many of the reported studies had methodological weaknesses.

What did the researchers say?

The authors, from the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit in Oxford, said: ‘This systematic review found no convincing evidence of adverse effects of prenatal binge drinking, except possibly on neurodevelopmental outcomes.

‘When pregnant women report isolated episodes of binge drinking in the absence of a consistently high daily alcohol intake, as is often the case, it is important to avoid inducing unnecessary anxiety, as, at present, the evidence of risk seems minimal.’

What does this mean for nursing practice?

Mervi Jokinen, practice & standards development advisor at the RCM, said: ‘The RCM is deeply concerned that this study could imply that there is little substantive evidence that binge drinking while pregnant seriously harms a developing foetus and gives the impression that drinking during pregnancy is safe.

‘Previous research indicates that alcohol consumption of even around 15 units a week may lead to reduction in birth weight and may affect intellectual development. More than 3 units per week raises the risk of miscarriage

‘A very occasional drink of one unit may not be problematic, especially after the foetus is fully formed. However, the RCM would support the current recommendations that women who are considering pregnancy or who are pregnant should avoid any alcohol intake. This message is congruent with a firm commitment to health promotion, and is similar to advice given internationally.

‘Midwives are in a unique position to discuss with women any concerns that they may have regarding alcohol intake during pregnancy, and we encourage them to consult their midwife on the issue.’

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (2007) 61: 1069-1073

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