The proportion of women in Europe who drink alcohol when they know they are pregnant is highest in the UK and lowest in Norway, according to researchers.
The European countries in the study with the highest proportion of women who reported alcohol consumption during pregnancy were the UK (28.5%), Russia (26.5%) and Switzerland (20.9%).
“We can speculate that both social and cultural factors play a role”
The countries with the lowest proportion of women who reported alcohol consumption were Norway (4.1%), Sweden (7.2%) and Poland (9.7%).
The study involved over 7,000 women and is the first to compare alcohol consumption during pregnancy across 11 European countries.
Of the 7,905 women who took part in the study, 53 % were pregnant and 46 % were new mothers with a child up to one-year-old.
The countries included were Croatia, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.
Participants completed an anonymous online questionnaire, which was available on selected websites intended for pregnant women in the respective countries.
Since the questionnaire was anonymous, the study authors said they believed that underreporting was minimal.
On average, 16% of women in the 11 European countries reported that they drank alcohol after they knew that they were pregnant.
“There could be differences in national guidelines or educational campaigns”
Women who reported drinking alcohol during pregnancy were more likely than the others to be older, more highly educated, in employment, and to have smoked before pregnancy.
When looking for reasons for their findings, the researchers concluded that the drinking culture in the overall population may not necessarily apply to those who are pregnant.
Although Britons generally drink more than Norwegians, the study found countries with similar drinking cultures to the UK – like Poland and France – had relatively low proportions of women drinking during pregnancy.
Of those women who said they drank alcohol during pregnancy, 39 % consumed at least one unit of alcohol per month.
Those who drank most frequently – more than one to two units per week – were in Italy and the UK, while those who drank the least – 1-2 units during the whole pregnancy – were in Norway, Sweden, France, Poland, Finland and Russia.
The researchers noted that, even though a larger proportion of Russian women continued to drink during pregnancy, compared to the other countries, they did not actually drink that much.
The women who drank during pregnancy in Italy seemed to drink a lot more than the women in the other countries, they highlighted.
The study authors speculated whether older, more educated women might be more critical towards guidelines that recommended complete abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy.
The authors suggested older women were less exposed than younger women to health campaigns that warned against alcohol use during pregnancy, especially if they drank a little during previous pregnancies and had healthy children.
British women ‘most likely to drink while pregnant’
One of the senior study authors, Professor Hedvig Nordeng, from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, said: “Differences in pregnant women’s drinking behaviour between countries can have many explanations.
“There could be differences in national guidelines or educational campaigns about drinking during pregnancy, differences in prenatal care and attitudes towards alcohol use in pregnancy, or a combination of all these factors,” she suggested.
Fellow researcher Angela Lupattelli, from Oslo University, added: “We can speculate that both social and cultural factors play a role.
“Women’s attitudes on the one hand, and national alcohol-related guidelines and policies on the other, may influence women’s drinking behaviour during pregnancy,” she said.
The study was jointly led by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the University of Oslo, in collaboration with the University of Gothenburg and Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Sweden.
The findings have been published in Women and Birth, the Journal of the Australian College of Midwives.