Alcohol in pregnancy confusion warning from Public Health Wales

Pregnant bump and wine glass If pregnant women choose to drink, they are advised not to consume more than two units a week

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Confusing messages about how much alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy is making it difficult for the NHS to tackle substance misuse, experts warn.

Public Health Wales said drinking too much while expecting a baby can lead to miscarriage, low birth weight, learning disabilities and hyperactivity.

But it said a lack of clear guidance about how much was too much meant some women did not trust or follow advice.

It said midwives needed training to help pregnant women moderate drinking.

The UK government advises that women who are pregnant or who are trying to conceive should avoid alcohol entirely.

Start Quote

"I think the government advice softens the message as perhaps people think there's not anything really wrong with drinking because they don't completely rule it out”

End Quote Karen Jewell Consultant midwife in public health

But it concedes that if women do choose to drink, they should limit consumption to no more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week.

However, last year mothers-to-be were warned by researchers at Oxford and Bristol Universities that drinking one or two glasses of wine a week during pregnancy could have an impact on a child's IQ.

In a report, Public Health Wales (PHW) said such "constant changes to advice in relation to alcohol are unhelpful".

It said it caused "confusion and can also result in a lack of trust and regard for future messages, not only in relation to alcohol, but also for other health issues".

While the prevalence of substance misuse during pregnancy is not clear, PHW said some 64,000 Welsh children may be adversely affected by parental alcohol problems.

Despite this, services and support for substance misuse in pregnancy vary across Wales and tend to focus more on drugs, it added.

The effects of alcohol in pregnancy

  • When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, the levels of alcohol in her baby's blood rise as high as her own
  • Because the baby's liver is immature, it can't break down the alcohol as fast as an adult can
  • This means the baby is exposed to greater amounts of alcohol for longer than the mother
  • When an unborn baby is constantly exposed to alcohol, a particular group of problems can develop, known as foetal alcohol syndrome
  • The government advises pregnant women to avoid alcohol completely, although if they do choose to drink, it says not to have more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week.
  • The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says there's no evidence a couple of units once or twice a week will harm the baby. Binges, even if you don't do it regularly, are definitely to be avoided

Source: BBC Health

The report recommended that midwives and nurses around Wales be given training to discuss the issue with women and encourage and support them to try to cut down on their drinking.

Karen Jewell, consultant midwife in public health in Cardiff, said she believed the government was sending mixed messages to expectant mothers.

"I think the government advice softens the message as perhaps people think there's not anything really wrong with drinking because they don't completely rule it out," she said.

"But most midwives would say to stop completely."

Ms Jewell, a member of the Royal College of Midwives, added: "I think the training of midwives a good thing - we have already started it. It is basically a motivational interview, where women are asked to look at their lifestyle as a whole.

"If they need help or a midwife suspects there's a problem, they can be referred to a substance misuse midwife."

A Welsh government spokesperson said the report added "some clarity and evidence about the effect of drinking alcohol, and taking other substances, during pregnancy."

"Rates of alcohol consumption in pregnancy are being monitored six-monthly by maternity services performance boards.

"Our advice, available through the Change4Life website, remains: you should avoid drinking alcohol if you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant."

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