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Why Scientists Think a Glass of Wine During Pregnancy Isn’t So Bad

Pregnant women should probably swear off alcohol for nine months. But that doesn’t mean all drinks are created equal — and light drinking may not meaningfully increase the risks of preterm birth or developmental disabilities

Pregnant women should probably swear off alcohol for nine months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocate total abstinence, as do most major medical organizations. The virtue of this approach is simplicity. The problem is that it requires not drinking when pregnant. And that may be unnecessary. Studies suggest a glass of wine during pregnancy or a clever cocktail might be perfectly safe. And light drinking when pregnant may not meaningfully increase the risks of preterm birth or developmental disabilities.

Based on the data, some experts have concluded the risks of drinking when pregnant have been overstated, and a glass of wine during pregnancy is fine. So let’s look at the data.

The More You Drink, The Greater The Risk

“There is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant,” according to the CDC. And since nearly half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, the CDC is essentially saying that fertile, sexually active women should abstain.

The risks are significant. Alcohol in the mother’s bloodstream passes to her baby via the umbilical cord. There is no shortage of evidence that more alcohol means more risk, and the data below come from a Danish study conducted in 2004. Researchers specifically looked at preterm birth — the leading cause of death among children under five years of age  —and found that more drinks per week mean a greater risk of delivering before 37 weeks gestation.

Sip Wine, Avoid Shots

Damning evidence against alcohol, to be sure. But that does not mean all drinks are created equal. The Surgeon General has stated that there is no safe type of alcohol during pregnancy, but the same 2004 study we referenced above also examined what pregnant women were drinking, and found that risk of preterm delivery was significantly higher among women who drank beer or hard liquor. This applied even though the women who drank spirits reported fewer drinks per week, on average. The results suggest that what pregnant women drink may matter even more than how much they drink—at least to a certain extent. 

An Occasional Sip Of Wine Is Probably Fine

Until now, we’ve avoided controversy. Experts agree that alcohol and pregnancy don’t mix, and that the more you drink — and the more alcohol in what you’re drinking — the more damage can be done. But one question that has long plagued the medical community is whether occasional (one standard drink per week), light (2-6), and moderate (7-10) drinking is truly harmful. Major medical organizations all pretty much agree that it is.

And yet, there’s ample evidence that only children of heavy drinkers (11+ drinks per week) are at increased risk for long-term negative outcomes. The data below come from a 2010 study that followed newborns until age 14 to figure out how many of them displayed behavioral problems based on their mothers’ drinking habits. The trend shows that, until about age 5, there was no meaningful difference between children of teetotalers and those even moderate drinkers. From that point onward, behavioral problems across groups decline uniformly.