Plea for funds to research drinking levels in early pregnancy

A diary system revealed the true extent of alcohol intake. Photograph: Getty
A diary system revealed the true extent of alcohol intake. Photograph: Getty
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A leading expert in mother and infant health is calling on the Scottish Government to provide funding for research into the amount women drink around conception.

Dr Andrew Symon, a lecturer at the University of Dundee, conducted a groundbreaking study in 2015 that used a retrospective diary system to record the alcohol 510 women consumed at this time.

The team who carried out the research in Ayrshire and Fife found that the amount of drink taken in the first few weeks of pregnancy was significantly higher than previously estimated.

In most cases women are asked by health professionals how many units of alcohol they consumed, but the retrospective diary system drilled down further to reveal the true extent of alcohol intake.

It noted instead firstly on which days women drank, then asked them to specify the types of drinks they had on “drinking days”, as well as how many and what size they had of each. The researchers found the percentage of women binge drinking rose from around 20 to 50 per cent when the diary system was used as opposed to the standard questionnaire that determined the amount of units drunk per week.

Dr Symon is now looking to do further research with the potential to roll the retrospective diary out across NHS Scotland.

He said: “It could help babies being affected by alcohol. The reason we should find out what women were drinking before they knew they were pregnant is the strong correlation between heavy drinking pre-pregnancy and continuing to drink in pregnancy.

“If you don’t ask the questions about – ‘what did you normally drink before you were pregnant?’ you’re less likely to pick up the heavy drinkers when they’re pregnant – because they’ll tell you they’re not drinking.”

Dr Symon said more testing was required to ensure the sample they used was not atypical and said the team could do a lot with about £50,000 worth of funding.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are committed to raising awareness of the potential dangers of consuming alcohol during the ante-natal period.

“All pregnant women are asked about drinking habits as part of their midwifery booking appointment and offered support if required.”