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Drinking while pregnant: No amount of alcohol is safe according to latest report

Drinking during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The American Academy of Pediatrics shares its latest recommendations.
/ Source: TODAY

Calling prenatal exposure to alcohol the leading preventable cause of birth defects and intellectual disabilities in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics says no amount of alcohol should be viewed as safe throughout a pregnancy.

Drinking during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, a group of conditions that can occur in a child whose mother consumed alcohol during pregnancy. Drinking-related birth defects and developmental disabilities are avoidable through abstention, the academy said in a report published online Monday.

“There is no known absolutely safe quantity, frequency, type, or timing of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, but having no PAE (prenatal alcohol exposure) translates into no FASD," the report said. “Despite research evidence clearly documenting the spectrum of detrimental consequences of PAE, too many women continue to drink alcohol during pregnancy.”

The advice is similar to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which has long advised that there is no safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed throughout a pregnancy, and that it’s best to avoid drinking while pregnant.

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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders cover various conditions and symptoms that can include physical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems and can range from mild to severe. The most serious type, fetal alcohol syndrome, can cause problems with growth, behavioral problems or abnormal facial features.

The academy noted that prenatal alcohol exposure is linked to higher incidences of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and learning disabilities like problems with math and language, memory skills and impulse control.

The clinical report is an update of the academy's policy from 2000, which also said there is no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and recommended women abstain from drinking while pregnant or planning to become pregnant. The report published Monday is more focused on the range of disorders linked to drinking during pregnancy rather than just fetal alcohol syndrome.

While the advice to avoid alcohol isn’t new, not all pregnant women are heeding it.

One in 10 pregnant American women admitted to consuming alcohol occasionally, and one-third of those admitted to binge drinking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report last month. The report said as many as 5 percent of first-graders might have a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

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On TODAY Tuesday, Dr. Natalie Azar, an NBC News medical contributor, said the pediatricians group may have felt compelled to release the report because some people may believe that it’s OK to drink here and there, or perhaps after the first trimester.

“They came down very clearly that from the severest form, which is fetal alcohol syndrome, to milder forms of neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems, which fall on the spectrum, that really the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy can lead to these things,” she said.

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“The bottom line is that we don’t know how much is safe, so therefore the only reasonable recommendation really is to advise women not to drink at all,” Azar said.

She noted too that the problems in children whose mothers drank will last a lifetime, though early intervention can help. And, the amount of alcohol consumed affects the severity of the problems.

The academy’s patient page on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder notes that the negative consequences of drinking can occur before women know they are pregnant, and advises women who are trying to get pregnant to abstain from alcohol.