Complications due to drinking during pregnancy can range from the very serious Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to the less severe and possibly greater-occurring Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. The timing of alcohol consumption, its frequency, the beverage size and type, all appear to be crucial elements of identifying risk. A new survey has found that nearly 80 percent of non-Indigenous West Australian women consumed alcohol during the three months before pregnancy; nearly half had not planned their pregnancies; and more than half drank alcohol during pregnancy despite recommendations of abstinence.
"There is a lack of information as it relates to the measurement of alcohol consumption during the periconceptional period of pregnancy," said Lyn Colvin, a researcher at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research at The University of Western Australia and corresponding author for the study.
Colleen O'Leary, a research associate at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, concurs. "The most vulnerable period for the fetus is during the first trimester," she said, "although there is potential risk to the baby from drinking throughout pregnancy. It is important to know how much alcohol women are drinking both during the periconceptional period and throughout pregnancy, as well as more about the relationship between alcohol consumption during the periconceptional period and unplanned pregnancy. This information is important for women and men, policy makers and researchers."
Researchers analyzed data from a survey and found that nearly 80 percent reported drinking alcohol in the three months before becoming pregnant.
"Of those 3,860 women consuming alcohol in the three months before pregnancy," said Colvin, "the majority (55.6%) drank more than one type of alcoholic beverage. Once pregnant, the majority (65.5%) drank only one type of alcoholic beverage."
Nearly half of the women (46.7%) surveyed had not planned their pregnancy.
"These data are in agreement with other Australian studies, and studies from the United States and Britain," said O'Leary. "It is concerning, however, that with the range of contraceptive options available to women that such a high proportion of pregnancies are unplanned." Furthermore, she added, the women who had planned their pregnancies were significantly less likely to drink alcohol during the first trimester than women who did not plan their pregnancy. "This would indicate that many pregnancies may be exposed to high levels of alcohol during the periconceptional period, prior to pregnancy awareness."
More than half of the women (58.7%) drank alcohol during pregnancy despite the recommendation at the time of the study (1995-1997) of abstinence.
"It is interesting to note that the number of women who consumed alcohol during the 2nd trimester (42.4%) was similar to the number during the 1st trimester (42.1%)," said Colvin.
'Despite what initially appears alarming, said Colvin, "it is actually encouraging that many women who drank alcohol reduced their consumption in the first trimester of pregnancy. With appropriate information, they and others may be able to further reduce or abstain from consuming alcohol when they are pregnant or might soon become pregnant.
Both Colvin and O'Leary were concerned about "binge" drinking among women of childbearing age.