A new study that downplays the risks of binge drinking during pregnancy could give some party-prone women the wrong idea, medical experts say.
The study, in which researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom gathered the results of research on binge drinking and its effects on pregnancy published from 1970 to 2005, suggests there is little evidence that occasional alcohol consumption -- and even a binge or two -- causes lasting harm to unborn babies.
"The principal finding of this systematic review of the fetal effects of prenatal binge-drinking is that there is no consistent evidence of adverse effects across different studies," note the study's authors in their article, which was published Tuesday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
"It seems that at relatively low amounts of alcohol and infrequent occasions of binge-drinking, there is no consistent evidence of adverse effects."
The researchers did, however, leave the door open to possible neurological effects associated with children born to mothers who binge drank during pregnancy. These comparatively mild effects included an increase in "disinhibited" behavior, a higher chance of learning problems and a reduction in verbal IQ.
Not all doctors, however, agree that the risks of binge drinking during pregnancy are as minimal as the study implies.
"The paper does not change the well-documented fact that heavy drinking in pregnancy has adverse effects on the developing fetus," says Dr. Martin Keszler, professor of pediatrics and director of nurseries at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.
He adds that the study did not compare women who binged against those who did not drink; rather, it compared binge drinking pregnant women against those who drank moderately but consistently.
"It is also important to understand that a lack of convincing evidence of harm is not the same as evidence of lack of harm. It means that available studies did not support the hypothesis that binge drinking is more harmful than regular drinking, but for a variety of reasons, the quality of the evidence is weak."
"It flies against common sense," says Dr. Robert Zurawin, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
"It looks like they're trying to say that there's no strong evidence that it is bad, but there is no evidence that it is not bad either."
How Much Is Too Much?
The findings also appear to be at odds with the recommendations of government health agencies and many obstetricians alike. In 2005, then-Surgeon General Dr. Richard H. Carmona reissued a 25-year-old advisory about the dangers of drinking while pregnant out of concern that more women were doing so.
The American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have also strongly recommended that expectant mothers avoid any alcohol during their pregnancy.
Zurawin, for one, says he takes a slightly more relaxed approach when it comes to drinking while pregnant.
"I think that reasonable alcohol intake does not cause fetal alcohol syndrome or long-term damage to the baby," he notes. "But what we do know is that in many women alcohol does cause problems, and we don't know how much is too much."
And he says that even though the scientific evidence appears to be neutral, a binge-drinking episode is too much by any measure for an expectant mom. "Certainly these women should avoid binge drinking, and I don't think that a single study should reverse a whole culture of caution," he says.
Additional Risks of Bingeing
But what if pregnant women who binge drink really do get off scot-free? Zurawin says that even if the potential issues of alcohol's effect on a fetus are set aside, binge-drinking may be problematic for a mother-to-be.
"From a philosophical perspective, pregnancy is a time when parents should begin setting aside their own impulses and start directing themselves to what's best for the baby," Zurawin says.
He adds that binge drinking is known to increase the risks of other situations that might put a fetus in danger -- such as car accidents or drug use.
Still, he says, for those women who do fall off the wagon sometime during the nine months before their child is born, the study may provide a slight measure of peace of mind.
"If a pregnant woman happens to go out and get ripped, they don't have to be overcome with guilt that they have created a damaged baby," Zurawin says. "But by the same token, this should not be seen as a license to go out and get drunk.
"What a woman should take away from this is that if she is planning to get pregnant, she should do her partying ahead of time and behave while she's pregnant."