A new study published today in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health looks at alcohol consumption from preconception until the end of pregnancy, and suggests how alcohol consumption in the first 3 months of pregnancy may heighten the risk of having a premature or small baby.
The research is based on responses to food frequency questionnaires by 1,264 women at low risk of birth complications in Leeds. All the women were part of the Caffeine and Reproductive Health (CARE) study, looking into links between diet and birth outcomes.
The women were asked how often they drank alcohol, and what type it was, at four time points – in the four weeks before conception and in each of the subsequent three months (trimesters) throughout the pregnancy.
The findings showed that alcohol consumption among the study group was significantly higher before conception and in the first three months of pregnancy than in the subsequent two trimesters.
Over half (53%) of the women drank more than two weekly units during the first trimester and were twice as likely to give birth to an unexpectedly small or premature baby than women who abstained completely, the research suggests.
The authors also found that women who consumed less than two weekly units were still at increased risk of a premature birth, even after taking account of other influential factors.
Dr Patrick O’Brien, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said:
“This is an interesting study as it provides us with an insight into women’s drinking patterns both before and during pregnancy.
“The findings suggest that even small amounts of alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy may increase the risk of a small impairment to the baby’s growth and possibly premature birth.
“This is consistent with RCOG advice that if a woman falls pregnant she should abstain from alcohol during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy because this is a particularly sensitive time for the baby’s development.
“However, while the safest approach would be to choose not to drink at all, small amounts of alcohol, not more than one to two units once or twice a week, have not been shown to be harmful after 12 weeks of pregnancy.
“Pregnant women should always consult their midwives or doctors if they have any concerns about their alcohol intake.”
To view the study Maternal alcohol intake prior to and during pregnancy and risk of adverse birth outcomes: evidence from a British cohort, please click here.