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One in 10 pregnant women in U.S. report drinking alcohol, CDC finds

Creative Commons/Thomas van Ardenne
Alcohol use during pregnancy is a serious matter, raising the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth.

One in 10 pregnant women in the United States have consumed alcohol within the previous month, and 1 in 33 have engaged in at least one episode of binge drinking during that same period, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The study also found that pregnant women who binge drink — defined as consuming four or more alcoholic drinks on a single occasion — tend to do so more frequently than women who are not pregnant.

These findings, published Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), are discouraging, to say the least. U.S. government officials have set a public health goal of reducing the proportion of pregnant women who consume alcohol to less than 2 percent by the year 2020. That goal also includes eliminating binge drinking among pregnant women.

We remain quite a distance from that goal.

Alcohol use during pregnancy is a serious matter, raising the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. It also raises the risk that the baby will be born with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), an umbrella term for a group of conditions that can cause physical, behavioral and learning problems. It’s estimated that up to 5 percent of first-grade students in the United States have an FASD. 

The CDC and other major health organizations advise women not to drink any kind of alcohol while pregnant — or while trying to get pregnant. Research has not identified a guaranteed safe level of alcohol during pregnancy; thus, it’s safest to avoid it altogether.

Study details

Data for the new study came from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), an ongoing series of health-related telephone (cell and landline) surveys. This particular set of data was collected from random surveys of 200,000 women of childbearing age (18 to 44 years) in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Of those women, 8,383 said they were pregnant.

The data revealed that 10.2 percent of the pregnant women surveyed reported drinking alcohol in the previous 30 days, compared to 53.6 percent of the non-pregnant women.

As for binge drinking, 3.1 percent of the pregnant women reported doing so within the previous month, compared to 18.2 percent of the pregnant women.

Although the numbers associated with pregnant women (as well as with non-pregnant women who are binge drinking) are concerning, they do indicate an overall awareness that alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy.

The data also revealed, however, that among binge drinkers, pregnant women reported engaging in such episodes more frequently than did non-pregnant women — an average of 4.6 versus 3.1 episodes within the past 30 days. They also tended to consume more alcoholic beverages during each of those episodes — an average of 7.5 versus 6.0 drinks.

The CDC researchers say these numbers suggest that women who are unable to give up alcohol during pregnancy may be more likely than their peers to have an alcohol-dependency problem.

The study also found that, among pregnant women, alcohol use was highest among women aged 35-44 (18.6 percent), college graduates (13 percent) and unmarried women (12.9 percent). 

Difficult to determine a trend

Several years ago, a CDC report that used BRFSS data from 2006-2010 found that 7.6 percent of pregnant women had consumed alcohol within the previous 30 days and 1.4 percent had engaged in binge drinking.

So are we sliding backward in our attempts to discourage pregnant women from drinking?

Not necessary. The trend behind the numbers released in this latest CDC report are difficult to interpret because the methodology for collecting the statistics have changed, said Emily Gunderson, communications director for the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (MOFAS), in an interview with MinnPost. 

The increased rates of pregnancy-related drinking uncovered in the latest report may reflect that change in methodology rather than changes in pregnant women’s behavior.

“We put a lot of our effort into educating women about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy,” said Gunderson. “Unfortunately, it’s really hard to measure whether they change their behavior. 

“I don’t have any good statistical backup,” she added, “but I know from anecdotal evidence that women seem to have more information and are better educated about the risks about drinking during pregnancy than they were a decade ago.”

The extent of the problem in Minnesota is difficult to know, partly because the state has no surveillance system for tracking babies born with FASDs, Gunderson said.

“We do know, based on national data, that about 5,300 babies born in Minnesota every year have been exposed prenatally,” she said. “That’s about 100 babies born each a week who are at higher risk of having a FASD.”

You can read the CDC report on the agency’s website. For more information about drinking and pregnancy — and about resources available for Minnesota families raising a child with a FASD disability — go to the MOFAS website.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/28/2015 - 08:44 am.

    How much and when

    The problem with a lot of this article, as well as a lot of popular information available, is that it puts all risk into one compartment: it presumes that any and all alcohol consumed by a pregnant woman poses a risk of FAS to the baby. The research doesn’t support that presumption. Unfortunately, the greatest risk of FAS is at the early stages of development–when a woman might not know she’s pregnant. The risk appears to be lower later in development, and is directly related to the amount of alcohol consumed.

    What’s particularly obnoxious about these articles, here and in WHO articles and in CDC articles, is that it doesn’t focus on the specific risk window and behavior. It seems to focus on ALL alcoholic intake by women. You’ll see statistics about the percentage of women of childbearing age that consume any alcohol followed by statistics on binge drinking. This article, at least, compares them. But, really, is it necessary to scrutinize drinking in general? Binge drinking is a problem, regardless of whether you’re female or pregnant, but alcohol consumption in general is not necessarily a problem.

    The interesting part is that women who binge drink while pregnant drink more, on average, than the women who binge drink while not pregnant. Now THAT’S worth investigating. (Also, I can almost bet you that the percentage reporting drinking while pregnant is artificially low. Of course most women know they shouldn’t drink while pregnant–and they’re more likely to tell you they did things right rather than wrong, especially since we tend to treat pregnant women as shameful if they don’t conform to perfection in pregnancy.)

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