More women drink alcohol while pregnant in the UK than in 10 other European countries, a study has found.
Researchers discovered that British mothers-to-be were the most likely to ignore advice to avoid alcohol.
The survey of 7,905 women in 11 European countries showed that 28.5% of UK participants admitted to drinking when they knew they were pregnant.
In sharp contrast, just 4.1% of Norwegian women consumed alcohol during their pregnancy, the lowest proportion recorded.
Government health advice in the UK recommends that pregnant women and those planning to conceive avoid all alcohol consumption as a precautionary measure.
Alcohol can seriously affect the development of an unborn baby, increasing the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, learning difficulties and behavioural problems.
Surprisingly, the study found that countries such as Poland and France whose drinking culture is similar to that of the UK had relatively low proportions of women drinking while pregnant.
Lead investigator Professor Hedvig Nordeng, from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, said: “Differences in pregnant women’s drinking behaviour between countries can have many explanations besides variations in willingness of women to provide information about their alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
“There could be differences in national guidelines or educational campaigns about drinking during pregnancy, differences in prenatal care and attitudes towards alcohol use in pregnancy, or a combination of all these factors.”
Of all the women who confessed to drinking during pregnancy, 39% consumed at least one unit of alcohol per month.
Women in the UK were among those who drank the most frequently. Of the British expectant mothers who consumed alcohol, nearly 3% drank more than one to two units every week.
One unit of alcohol is the equivalent of a 25ml single measure of whiskey, half a pint of standard-strength beer, or a small 76ml glass of wine.
On average, 16% of the women surveyed said they had consumed alcohol after they knew they were pregnant.
After the UK, the countries with the largest proportion of women drinking when pregnant were Russia (26.5%) and Switzerland (20.9%).
The countries whose mothers-to-be were least likely to consume alcohol were Norway (4.1%), Sweden (7.2%), and Poland (9.7%).
Women who said they drank when pregnant were generally more likely to be older, more highly educated, and employed. They were also more likely to have smoked before becoming pregnant.
Co-author Dr Angela Lupattelli, from the University of Oslo in Norway, said: “We can speculate that both social and cultural factors play a role.
“Women’s attitudes on the one hand, and national alcohol-related guidelines and policies on the other, may influence women’s drinking behaviour during pregnancy.”
Women from the UK, Croatia, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, and Sweden took part in the study, published in the journal Women And Birth.