Inconsistent guidelines for low alcohol intake or abstinence
during pregnancy are confusing for pregnant women and have little effect on women's
alcohol intake during pregnancy, according to research published in the Medical
Journal of Australia.
Ms Jennifer Powers, statistician at the University of Newcastle, NSW, and co-authors analysed data collected by the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health from women aged 22-33 years who were pregnant before October 2001, when guidelines recommended zero alcohol, or who were first pregnant after October 2001, when guidelines recommended low alcohol intake.
They found that women's alcohol intake prior to pregnancy was the strongest determinant of alcohol intake during pregnancy, whereas guidelines for low alcohol intake or abstinence had little effect.
"Women who drank moderate or high amounts of alcohol before pregnancy were 1.5 times less likely to drink low amounts of alcohol during pregnancy."
The study also found that about 80 per cent of women consumed alcohol during pregnancy under zero and low alcohol guidelines.
Ms Powers said the inconsistency of Australian alcohol guidelines was confusing for pregnant women and health practitioners, and there was an overwhelming need for research to clearly establish the risks associated with different levels of alcohol intake during pregnancy.
"The effects of low to moderate alcohol intake on the unborn child are unclear, which leaves most pregnant women in a "no-person's-land" where guidelines are not backed up by clear consequences and the guidelines themselves are poorly communicated," she said.
"It is important that the large group of women who drink alcohol at low to moderate levels receive clear and consistent messages from health professionals.
"Whatever the research eventually shows, the current situation is untenable."
The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health is funded by the Department of Health and Ageing and this analysis was funded by a NSW Department of Health grant to the University of Newcastle and the University of NSW.
The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.