Australian experts are upset over the Oxford University report that found 'no consistent evidence' that occasional binge drinking damaged fetuses.
While the scientists behind the report have called for more research to be undertaken, and recommend pregnant women still avoid binge drinking, Australian health workers have still criticised them for sending mixed messages.
AdvertisementMercy Hospital for Women neonatologist Philip Henschke said the report was misleading because the research examined only babies in the first months of their lives, before the age when many of the well-documented consequences of fetal alcohol syndrome first appeared.
'If you read this without understanding the full implications of the way these studies have been reported, you could take it as reassuring it is OK to drink to a binge level in pregnancy,' he said.
'The opposite is true -- the weight of evidence when you go beyond 36 weeks of age is that binge drinking and pregnancy is associated with specific learning and behavioural issues that . . . impact on lifetime achievement.'
It is also pointed out that in the UK official guidance says women should abstain from alcohol completely if pregnant or trying for a baby.
The relationship between sustained heavy drinking in pregnancy and health problems for mother and child is well-established.
In the most severe cases, it can cause miscarriage or stillbirth, or permanent damage to the growing foetus.
A small number of babies in the most severe cases can be born with 'foetal alcohol syndrome', with symptoms including growth and mental retardation.
In recent years, however, the number of women who 'binge drink' - defined as drinking five or more drinks at a single sitting - has grown rapidly, almost doubling in the 10 years from 1992.
The government has urged women to avoid binge-drinking completely during pregnancy, and the British Medical Association has gone a step further, suggesting that pregnant women should avoid alcohol altogether as a precaution.
I wouldn't want anybody to believe that, on the basis of this report, that it was safe to binge drink, says Dr Ron Gray, National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit.
The Oxford research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, examined the findings of 14 previous studies on binge drinking and pregnancy.
Even while discounting the adverse impact of binge drinking by pregnant women, the study's authors admitted there was some suggestion that it might impair normal neurodevelopment. Still the evidence was small, they said.
These included 'disinhibited behaviour,' reduced verbal IQ, an increased tendency towards delinquent behaviour, learning problems and poorer academic performance.
They point out that the timing of binge drinking might be important, and that there may be more impact during the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, for example.
'This systematic review found no convincing evidence of adverse effects of prenatal binge drinking, except possibly on neurodevelopmental outcomes,' they write.
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