• Large-scale study on drinking habits of pregnant women
• Shows "alarmingly high rate of alcohol consumption"
• Single women who smoke most susceptible to drinking during pregnancy
Up to 80 per cent of women in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Ireland have admitted drinking alcohol during the early stages of pregnancy, according to a new report.
The study, published by respected British site BMJ Open, included feedback from 2000 Auckland women and discovered that single women who smoked were most susceptible to drinking during pregnancy.
Professor Doug Sellman, director of the National Addiction Centre at Otago University, found the research, produced by respected British site BMJ Open, "really disturbing".
"The reason why it's disturbing is because the message isn't getting through. It's very well known now that alcohol causes brain damage right from conception through to 80-year-olds, right throughout the whole of the life span and does have an impact on dementia and old age and has an impact on the developing brain in fetuses. So it's a neurotoxin, it causes brain damage."
University of Otago academic Dr Mark Huthwaite said the report identified a "surprising and alarmingly high rate of alcohol consumption during pregnancy".
The authors studied comments from thousands of women gathered in their first ongoing pregnancies between 2004 and 2007.
The prevalence of drinking ranged from 20 per cent to 80 per cent of women in Ireland and between 40 per cent and 80 per cent in New Zealand, Australia and the UK.
Professor Lesley McCowan, the head of Auckland University's department of obstetrics and gynaecology, who contributed to the study, said 23 per cent of participants reported being alcohol-free when they became pregnant.
"Of the 53 per cent (1063) women who reported that they drank any alcohol in the first trimester, 917 (86 per cent) stopped drinking by six weeks of pregnancy. Stopping drinking is likely to have corresponded with having a positive pregnancy test. So the large majority of these Auckland women are likely to have stopped drinking as soon as pregnancy was diagnosed.
"12 per cent of women reported that they were still drinking alcohol when seen by the SCOPE research team at 20 weeks of pregnancy and 95 per cent of these women were only having 1 to 2 units of alcohol weekly at this time.
"Women who were single and those who smoked cigarettes were more likely to drink during pregnancy. As there is no known safe level of alcohol use in pregnancy the best advice is not to drink alcohol in pregnancy."
'Miscarriages a nuisance'
Dr Huthwaite, senior lecturer and perinatal psychiatrist at the University of Otago, Wellington, said the discovery was alarming.
"Given the level of education and ages of those most likely to consume alcohol during pregnancy one might simply expect that these pregnant women ought to know better.
"The detrimental effects of alcohol on the foetus are well publicised, so why the disconnect between 'what I do and what I know'?
"Is it that miscarriages are now considered a mere nuisance and rather inconsequential or possibly are the effects of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder so subtle and presenting later in the child's life so as not to be considered of much significance?
"Pregnancy is a time of change and provides the opportunity to change drinking behaviour.
"Lead maternity carers (midwifes, general practitioners and obstetricians) are ideally positioned to effect this behavioural change in early pregnancy, however one needs to ask whether they have the time, know how and inclination to do so?
"Some will propose universal screening as a 'solution', but unless screening is accompanied by an intervention, a parallel process of 'knowing but not doing' is simply recreated."
The authors of the report said the data suggested that alcohol use during pregnancy was "prevalent and socially pervasive" in the countries surveyed and new policy and interventions were now required to reduce alcohol prevalence both prior to and during pregnancy.
Herald readers have been divided in the past on whether pregnant women should drink.
In March the issue made headlines when a heavily pregnant woman was refused a single glass of sparkling wine while celebrating her wedding anniversary at an Auckland restaurant.
Nichola Hayes said at the time she was "completely flabbergasted and embarrassed" when a waitress at Mac's Brewbar at the Nuffield Street Trading Company in Newmarket denied her service on the basis of her pregnancy.
Mrs Hayes, who was 36.5 weeks pregnant, said the waitress initially thought she wanted a soda and tried to list options for those.
"I then pointed out to her the drink I would like from the menu; she went away and came back a few minutes later and said she thought she had misunderstood me and asked if I was pregnant.
"I said, yes, and she said she was uncomfortable serving pregnant women alcohol."
The couple spoke to the duty manager who Mrs Hayes said told them it was his licence under which the restaurant was operating "and he could refuse to serve me alcohol at his discretion for health reasons".
Mrs Hayes said she felt the establishment was "pushing the boundary of host responsibility and being just a little bit too cautious".
"If I was in their shoes and a woman who was pregnant was ordering up large, I'd be questioning it as well," she said.
"But I'm an educated woman who knows the limits and have been so careful throughout the whole pregnancy."
At the time, restaurant co-owner Sam Ansley told the Herald he "completely sympathised" with Mrs Hayes and wanted to apologise to her for the actions of his over-zealous staff.
"My position would be that prohibited persons - minors and intoxicated people - are sacrosanct but outside that we need to be very careful we don't impinge on people's rights."
Christine Rogan, of the Fetal Alcohol Network, said the research was unlikely to be anything that they didn't already know.
"We're very aware of the levels of drinking during pregnancy and the concern that that raises or the risk that may pose to women."
Ms Rogan said between 600 and 3,000 births a year are affected by fetal alcohol syndrome, or between 1 and 5 per cent of the annual birth rate.
As for the report indicating mostly Caucasian women were surveyed, Ms Rogan said there was only one culture at risk, "the drinking culture".
It was time for women to "wise up" about the dangers of drinking while pregnant, even if it is in the early stages, she said.
"Parenting doesn't start at birth, it starts at conception ... this is not about blaming women, it's about our drinking culture that we can drink copious amounts and not do any harm."