Pregnant women 'shouldn't drink at all'
• Women warned over drinking while pregnant
• Doctors warn about damage even one drink could do
• 'No safe amount' is message
"Everyone who drinks during pregnancy is potentially at risk." - Dr Raja Mukherjee
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WOMEN must ignore government advice and give up alcohol completely during pregnancy if they want to safeguard the health of their unborn babies, doctors warned last night.
In a hard-hitting editorial, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) said as little as one drink could cause significant damage to a foetus.
It said current government guidelines - that women can safely drink up to two glasses of wine a week - should be ripped up in favour of a zero tolerance approach to alcohol similar to that taken in many other countries.
The authors said the time had come for action from the Department of Health following studies that firmly debunked the myth that foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) was suffered only by those infants born to mothers who abused drink.
The symptoms of FAS can include memory problems, limited attention span, hyperactivity, facial abnormalities and a diminished IQ.
Dr Raja Mukherjee, an expert in FAS at St George’s Hospital in London and a co-author of the article challenging the government’s stance in the BMJ, said: "Everyone who drinks during pregnancy is potentially at risk."
Despite the dire warning from the BMJ - the journal of the British Medical Association - a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said there were no plans to review guidance to women.
She said the advice that one or two units twice a week was safe would remain in place.
The study in the BMJ warned that the government’s message was blurred as many women had no idea how much a single unit of alcohol was. It said: "A study of alcohol consumption in 321 pregnant women found that when self-selecting drinks, the size of the drinks was up to 307 per cent greater than standard measures.
"The authors conclude that risk based on current assumptions might actually be much higher than previously expected."
In its editorial, the BMJ said: "Unlike the position of the Department of Health - that one to two units a week in pregnancy are safe - the position adopted increasingly in other countries is that no level of alcohol consumption is known to be safe in pregnancy.
"A health promotion message about a safe amount of alcohol, although designed to protect the pregnant mother and developing child, can be dangerous as it can so easily be misinterpreted.
"This uncertain level of individual risk to the developing foetus together with the possibility of misinterpreting a health promotion message mean that the only safe message in pregnancy is abstinence from alcohol."
A test carried out on women 25 weeks into their pregnancies was cited as an example of how small amounts of alcohol could affect babies in the womb.
A buzzer was sounded on the expectant mothers’ abdomens and their babies were expected to jump, alerted by the noise, in a healthy response.
Doctors say a jumping response shows that the baby’s brain and nervous system are working properly.
Researchers have found that even among women drinking as little as four units of alcohol a week, significantly fewer babies passed the startle test than those whose mothers drank nothing at all.
In Scotland the chief medical officer, Dr Mac Armstrong, said he welcomed the BMJ’s stance.
Dr Armstrong said: "We fully endorse the findings of the BMJ article, which reinforces existing guidance to pregnant women in Scotland.
"Every mum-to-be receives the ‘Ready Steady Baby’ publication early in their pregnancy, which draws attention to the dangers of foetal alcohol syndrome and advises that women avoid alcohol during pregnancy.
"A very occasional drink will not harm the pregnancy - but the general rule is that pregnant women should not drink alcohol."
In the United States women are advised not to drink at all during pregnancy, but more than two-thirds of British mothers-to-be do not totally give up.
Gillian Lenaghan, the Scottish national officer of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said last night the main concern was still over women who drank heavily during their pregnancies.
She said: "I have no doubt if a woman asked any of our members if she should drink alcohol then her midwife would look at it with her on a one-to-one, individual basis."
She said the RCM sought to give women all possible information on the issue so they could make an informed decision on whether to drink or not.
A spokeswoman for Alcohol Concern said it would continue to issue the Department of Health’s guidelines until they were changed.
However, she said it was time for a review in the light of the opinions in the BMJ and the growing debate around the issue.
Belinda Phipps, the chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust, said it was important to put mothers at the forefront of the debate and not vilify them for their choices.
She said: "What women need when they are pregnant is information because they have a lot of important decisions to make.
"I welcome the BMJ’s clear presentation of their views on alcohol, which will help inform the debate and the choices women make."
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