09 Sep, 2011 Last updated: 30 Nov, 2014

Women are told not to drink during pregnancy to protect their babies, but can the occasional glass of wine cause any harm?

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Women are told not to drink during pregnancy to protect their babies, but can the occasional glass of wine cause any harm? This is the question a new study into the effect of low and moderate alcohol use during pregnancy intends to answer.

While previous studies have looked at heavy alcohol use, this is the first study to look at the effects of low to moderate alcohol use during pregnancy.
Lead researcher, Associate Professor Jane Halliday from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, said the study hoped to some shed light on the best approach to alcohol use during  pregnancy.

“Lots of research has been done on effects of high levels of drinking, but not low levels and that’s what this study is focused on. As we don't know how much alcohol pregnant women can drink without harming the developing baby, not drinking any alcohol is currently considered the safest option,” Jane said.

“The lack of knowledge in this area has the potential to cause anxiety for women who have drunk even small amounts of alcohol before realising they are pregnant. It can also create problems for doctors and midwives about how to best advise women.”

In collaboration with Eastern Health, Mercy Health, Southern Health, the Royal Women’s Hospital and The Royal Children’s Hospital, researchers from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute will recruit about 2000 women early in pregnancy.

The study aims to assess whether low to moderate quantities of alcohol at various stages of pregnancy are associated with problems in the health and development of young children at birth and at 12-24 months of age. To understand this properly, the study will also collect information on things that might influence the effects of alcohol in pregnancy such as diet, medication and body size.

The study, which was last year awarded a $1.3 million NHMRC grant, will ask expectant mothers questions about pregnancy and conception, general health and lifestyle, drinking habits, diet during pregnancy and the child's early development. VicHealth funded the labour-intensive design of the survey, which took researchers more than a year to perfect.

“With so much contradictory information out there about alcohol and pregnancy, it’s no wonder some women feel reluctant to talk about it,” VicHealth’s acting CEO Associate
Professor John Fitzgerald said.

“By asking the right questions, the researchers will empower women to discuss this issue openly. This study will give an insight into the extent of alcohol use in pregnancy in Australia and will provide a clear indication about what the best health message is for pregnant women.”

Questionnaires will be given to mothers at three stages during pregnancy and once 12 months after the child’s birth. These questionnaires will help provide more accurate data on how different levels of drinking at different stages of pregnancy affect the developing fetus.

“In the future we hope this information may be useful for women planning to be pregnant, pregnant women, as well as the health professionals who provide maternity care,” Jane said. The mothers are currently being recruited from antenatal clinics at seven maternity hospitals around Melbourne.