Moms-to-Be Get Mixed Messages on Drinking

Asked about the warnings, he responded, "Give me a break! People who have a glass of wine on the weekend, it's not going to do any harm to the baby. In the first eight weeks when critical organs are forming, it's good to avoid alcohol and certainly smoking."

According to Michael S. Broder, a Los Angeles-based OB-GYN and the author of "The Panic-Free Pregnancy," the science is not definitive on the issue and the U.S. government and groups like the AMA are being overly cautious.

"They say that there isn't any evidence that drinking one glass of wine doesn't cause any real harm and that a safe alcohol level has never been established," he said. "But you don't prove things safe. The risk is so small, it's misleading to say that any alcohol will harm your baby."

Is it Time to Change the Rules?

Broder is concerned about the effect that these stern admonishments have on pregnant women, and he would like to see the government and the AMA issue more realistic advisories.

"The main harm coming from the guidelines is the guilt that it induces, to make pregnant women feel terrible if they have a single drink in a month."

Most OB-GYNs agree that the science is clear when it comes to heavy drinking or binge-drinking by pregnant women.

About 40,000 babies are born every year with some degree of alcohol-related damage, ranging from physical defects like small size and nearsightedness to mental defects like learning disabilities and hyperactivity.

And some studies have exposed dangers from moderate to light drinking by expectant mothers.

The children of mothers who had as little as one drink a week during pregnancy were more likely than the children of nondrinkers to exhibit behavior problems such as delinquency and aggressiveness, according to a 2001 study by Wayne State University researchers.

Despite these studies and the stern warnings, few pregnant women have changed their behavior. The ratio of moms-to-be drinking alcohol dropped slightly from 12.4 percent in 1999 to 2000 to 12.1 percent in 2005.

And the ratio of binge-drinkers remained the same at almost 4 percent.

Even some of the medical authorities acknowledge that the guidelines are overly prohibitive, given the science on the issue.

"You can't say that any alcohol, even the smallest amount, will lead to birth defects," said Donaldson of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. "But we also don't want to say that one drink a week is OK, because then people naturally say, 'Oh, if one's all right, then three can't be bad.'"

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