Light Drinking During Pregnancy: 7 Things You Need to Know

Last year, the CDC ignited a firestorm of criticism by stating that women should “stop drinking alcohol if they are trying to get pregnant or could get pregnant”, and–because an estimated 50% of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned–any woman who drinks alcohol should use birth control.

“Its [the CDC’s] underlying message was unmistakable: Women should consider themselves first a vessel for human life and make decisions about their health and behavior based on that possibility,” Rebecca Ruiz wrote at Mashable, in a typical reaction.

The (completely understandable) outrage at the CDC’s tone-deaf and condescending messaging has, unfortunately, drowned out information on the key question for many pregnant women: Is any amount of alcohol during pregnancy okay? And are there times when it should be absolutely avoided?

We all know that heavy drinking and binge drinking are harmful during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome, caused by heavy drinking during pregnancy, affects an estimated 2 to 7 children out of 1000. Another 2 to 7% of U.S. children are thought to suffer milder forms of cognitive impairment due to alcohol exposure in the womb.

But what about light drinking, a champagne toast or an occasional glass of wine at dinner? Women–pregnant, pre-pregnant, and otherwise–receive conflicting advice about the safety of light drinking.

Economist Emily Oster, in her bestselling pregnancy advice book Expecting Better, says pregnant women can be comfortable with “1 to 2 drinks a week in the first trimester” and one drink daily afterward, a stance she continues to stand behind.

Many doctors also greenlight the occasional drink, as Ruth Graham of Slate notes: “Many doctors seem perfectly comfortable with moderate alcohol consumption in the late stages of pregnancy. When I told my doctor that I was enjoying a glass of wine per week in my third trimester, she didn’t bat an eye.”

The CDC, on the other hand, maintains that no amount of drinking is safe.

“Any drinking is going to put your child at risk,” according to Clark Denny, a CDC epidemiologist. “You should not drink if you are pregnant, are considering getting pregnant or even if you could possibly get pregnant.”

Other countries, like the U.K. and France, that once gave less stringent advice–pregnant women should not exceed 1-2 drinks per week–now state no amount of drinking is safe, and that women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should abstain entirely.

At the heart of this debate is the research itself. So, what do we actually know about light drinking during pregnancy?

Let’s start with alcohol and the risk of miscarriage.

  1. Light drinking, the equivalent of 1-2 drinks per week, during the first trimester, boosts the odds of a first trimester miscarriage by about 30%, and the odds of a early second trimester miscarriage (between 13-16 weeks) by about 70%, according to a large study of over 90,000 pregnancies in Denmark. The risk rose with greater intakes. Drinking 4 or more drinks per week during the first trimester more than doubled the odds of a miscarriage. A U.S. based study found that women who drink 2 times per week in their first trimesters had a 25% chance of miscarriage, compared to a 14% chance for those who abstained. Other studies also find a higher risk of miscarriage for light drinkers (see here and here).

Does this mean that light drinking early in pregnancy causes miscarriage? Unfortunately, we cannot say for sure. Experimental studies in humans are impossible, so there are a lot of unknowns.

For one, some women may understate how much they actually drank during pregnancy, so the apparent rise in miscarriage could actually stem from moderate to heavy, rather than light, drinking.

Women who drink heavily during pregnancy often also smoke or have partners who smoke, and are more likely use drugs, receive worse prenatal care, live in poverty and experience extreme chronic stress–all of which can raise the risk of miscarriage and cognitive problems in their children, and any and all of these factors could exacerbate the toxic effects of alcohol on the fetus.

Poor nutrition and smoking in particular seem to worsen the effects of alcohol; alcohol lowers the amount of nourishment reaching the fetus.

Women who drink alcohol during their first trimester may have less nausea. (I for one could not get near alcohol in my first trimester, as much as I might, after a long day of nausea and chasing after a toddler, desire a drink.) Although about 25% of women do not experience nausea during pregnancy, an absence of nausea is linked with an increased risk of miscarriage, probably because poorly developing pregnancies produce fewer symptoms.

And finally, the problem may not arise from drinking during early pregnancy but from drinking before pregnancy.

2. Drinking alcohol may lower the chances of pregnancy, and increase the chances of miscarriage, by causing chromosomal abnormalities in the egg before ovulation. Alcohol has been shown to impair meiosis, the critical two-step cell division in maturing egg follicles, leading to chromosomally abnormal eggs. Chromosomal abnormalities account for over half of first trimester miscarriages. Worse, because eggs take several months to fully mature, even drinking in the months before conception could be harmful.

How much alcohol do you have to drink to harm your eggs? Again, we don’t have a good answer. The degree of harm likely depends on a lot of other things, like your age, your overall fecundity, your alcohol tolerance, how much alcohol you drink, and when you drink relative to critical phases in the egg’s development.

Clearly, even formerly heavy drinkers go on to have chromosomally normal and perfectly healthy pregnancies, so the effect is not absolute. The increase in chromosomal abnormalities is probably most problematic for couples already suffering from fertility issues. Among couples undergoing IVF, for instance, drinking appears to lower their chances of pregnancy.

Because the human data are limited, we have to turn to animal models. In one study using monkeys, the equivalent of binge drinking (4-5 drinks at a sitting) twice a week lowered the number of chromosomally normal eggs and increased the chances of miscarriage.

3. Alcohol does not reach the developing embryo until the 3rd week after fertilization, or pregnancy week 4, right after most pregnancy tests turn positive. In other words, even if you got pregnant on your honeymoon while more than a little tipsy and drank cocktails on the beach for the rest of the week, you have nothing to worry about. That alcohol did not reach your embryo.

What about harm to the fetus’s developing brain? Here’s the problem: No one knows at what threshold drinking alcohol becomes harmful, and that threshold may vary from person to person, just like alcohol tolerance and metabolism varies from person to person.

Heavy drinking and frequent binge drinking are clearly bad, but what about that occasional glass of wine or cocktail?

Emily Oster finds the not one drop rule propounded by the CDC and others absurd, and it’s easy to see where she is coming from. Lots of chemicals known to be harmful in large quantities are completely safe in small amounts. As she puts it,

“If you have too many bananas (and I mean a LOT of bananas), the excess of potassium can be a real problem, but no doctor is going around saying “No amount of bananas have been proven safe!” He’d be laughed out of a medical conference.”

But this argument, a version of the Paracelsus principle–the dose makes the poison–depends on the poison in question. Some toxins, like lead, are considered unsafe at any amount.

We don’t have great information about the actual threshold at which alcohol causes harm, or when harm is most likely to occur. But let’s sift through what we do know.

4. By the third week after conception (the 5th week of pregnancy), alcohol and its byproducts cross the placenta. Based on animal research, the fetus is believed to experience the same blood alcohol level as its mother.

5. Alcohol is a known neurotoxin. Although how alcohol causes damage is not entirely clear, neuronal loss with heavy or binge drinking is evident in animals and in humans. Harmful effects may be especially pronounced in the developing brain, particularly during the first trimester, when many of the changes in facial morphology in FAS appear to originate. Damage to slow growing brain structures, like the cerebellum, likely occurs throughout pregnancy.

6. Large epidemiological studies find no evidence of cognitive impairment with light drinking (1-2 drinks per week) in the second and third trimesters and less than a drink a week, on average, in the first trimester. This research is the basis of Emily Oster’s claim that a drink a day in the second and third trimesters is okay.

One of the largest of these studies is the U.K. Millennium cohort, which has followed a nationally representative sample of 11,000 children born betwen 2000-2002. At age 3, age 5, and age 7, both boys and girls whose mothers drank about 1-2 drinks per week actually had better overall cognitive performance and fewer behavioral and attention problems than children whose mothers abstained from drinking during pregnancy. Heavier drinking, on the other hand, was associated with worse cognitive performance and more behavioral problems.

(The higher test scores among children of light drinkers was almost surely NOT because alcohol benefited their development, but because women who drank lightly were on average more educated and of a higher socioeconomic status than women who abstained. This confounding of light drinking with education and socioeconomic status is actually a huge problem for interpreting this study’s results. Parental education, income, and social class all predict better cognitive performance and fewer behavior problems. So, who is to say that these children would not have been more advantaged had their mothers abstained throughout pregnancy?)

Other studies have found no effect on test scores or mental health at age 11 among children of mothers who drank less than 1 glass per week during their first trimester; no increase in mental health or behavior problems among children of light drinkers at age 2, 5, and 8 (but worse mental health seen among moderate, binge, and heavy drinkers); and no impairment in cognition, learning, or attention among 14 year olds whose mothers drank an average of less than a glass a day early or late in pregnancy; and no reduction in IQ, attention, or executive function at age 5 in women who drank up to an average of 5 drinks per week.

In short, light drinking during pregnancy, less than a drink a day on average, and no more than 1 drink at a sitting, has not been shown to cause detectable harm.

Because light drinking is more common among highly educated, high income women, the advantages of which could mask any subtle impairments caused by small doses of alcohol, we need to take these findings with a grain of salt.

7. Individual differences in alcohol metabolism and clearance probably determine the threshold at which alcohol causes harm. This is clear even among heavy drinkers: Only about 5% of babies born to women who abuse alcohol during pregnancy suffer from FAS.

But a recent study looking at IQ at age 8 found that among women who were genetically poor alcohol metabolizers, moderate drinking (1-6 drinks/week) was associated with lower IQ. Children of faster metabolizers, on the other hand, did not have lower IQs on average, nor did children of among poor metabolizers who abstained from drinking during pregnancy.

The Bottom Line

Drinking more than 2 drinks a week in the first trimester appears to substantially increase the risk of miscarriage. That said, we do not know whether alcohol causes miscarriage. A lack of nausea, or other problems that often go along with alcohol, like smoking, may contribute to or fully explain this effect.

One possible reason is that alcohol can cause chromosomal abnormalities in the egg prior to conception. Alcohol use before conception does NOT preclude a healthy pregnancy (clearly!). Still, couples who are struggling to conceive may boost their chances by abstaining from alcohol.

What about children’s cognitive abilities and emotional and mental health? Here, very light drinking, less than a drink per week on average, has not been not been shown to be harmful. And many studies find no harmful effects of 1-2 drinks per week.

However, women vary considerably in their ability to metabolize alcohol, based on their body size, liver size, and genetics. Other factors, like whether you drink with food and how quickly you drink (no tequila shots, please!), also affect the amount of alcohol reaching the fetus. So setting a “safe” threshold is basically impossible.

Given this variability, here’s my personal take: It seems wise to largely avoid alcohol during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester. An occasional glass of wine drunk slowly with dinner is probably fine, but I personally don’t see the upside to pushing the limits.

At the same time, women who drank a glass of wine here and there have no cause for alarm. The CDC’s draconian, not-one-drop stance is probably based on a slippery slope argument. If they say an occasional glass of wine or beer is fine, then some women might read this as license to overindulge.

On the other hand, Emily Oster’s advice to drink “up to 1 drink a day in the second and third trimesters, and 1 to 2 drinks a week in the first trimester” feels too risky for my blood. Most studies define light drinking as 1-2 drinks per week, much lower than Oster’s recommended maximum for the second and third trimesters.

At the end of the day, every woman is going to weigh the risks and benefits of light drinking a little differently. A reasonable woman could see the available evidence and feel comfortable with 1 to 2 drinks a week; another reasonable woman could see the available evidence and decide to abstain entirely.

What about drinking after pregnancy? Check out my post on drinking while breastfeeding.

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A Threatened Miscarriage, a Subchorionic Hematoma, and How United Airlines (Nearly) Ate My Baby

Three years ago, sitting with my 15-month-old son and my husband during a long layover, on our way back home from Norway, I felt a sudden gush of warm blood.

So much for my miracle pregnancy, I thought. I was only six weeks along and certain I was miscarrying.

Our return trip was already off to a poor start. United Airlines had cancelled our original flight from Newark home to San Francisco. Then, to rub salt in the wound, they refused to refund our first-class tickets.

We never fly first class, but had made an exception for this trip. We were travelling overseas with my 15-month old son and facing a 9-hour jet lag. The chance of sleeping on route, we decided, was worth the extra cash. We had bought our tickets a year in advance to lower the cost.

But United, being United, told us we would have to request a refund, and then maybe they would grant it. And–perhaps just for kicks–they refused to let us access the first-class lounge while in Newark, because our replacement tickets were now in Economy.

My husband–who nevers argues with anyone behind a counter and hates it when I do–spent half an hour arguing with their “customer service” that they should give us passes to the first class lounge. After all, we had paid for first-class tickets even if we no longer had them. But no dice.

So there we were, exhausted and enraged. I had not slept in over 24 hours. My son, sick for the last 3 days with a high fever, had nursed continuously the entire flight from Oslo to Newark. And then I started bleeding.

At that point, I contemplated tweeting, “United, you ate my baby,” but decided against publicly sharing my pregnancy or what I assumed was an impending miscarriage.

The pregnancy had been a surprise, but a welcome one. We had taken over a year to conceive my son. This time we had not been trying. I was still breastfeeding, and my cycles had only resumed a month earlier. We were planning to wait a few more months and then start trying for #2, expecting that it could easily be another 6 to 12 months before we conceived.

The bleeding tapered off by the next morning. I had no pain or cramping, so little fear of an ectopic pregnancy. And I still felt pregnant: nauseated, tired, and lightheaded.

I called my OB,  but they could not fit me in for another 5 weeks. Until then, they told me, just sit tight. Oh, and assume that I was still pregnant, because a miscarriage would have caused several days of heavy bleeding.

I found another OB.

My new OB ran tests. My HCG levels were normal, but my progesterone was low, perhaps because of the nearly constant breastfeeding, the lack of sleep, and the stress. She could not say for sure. She prescribed progesterone supplements for the rest of my first trimester.

Progesterone helps build up and maintain the uterine lining for implantation of the fertilized egg. High levels of progesterone are required to sustain an early pregnancy. But taking progesterone supplements during the first trimester to prevent a miscarriage is controversial.

Over half of miscarriages result from chromosomal abnormalities, and no amount of progesterone will save these pregnancies. A 2013 review of randomized trials, however, found that while progesterone supplements did not alter the risk of miscarriage for pregnant women as a whole, they did significantly lower the chances of miscarriages for women with 3 or more prior miscarriages.

And for women like me, with a threatened miscarriage (defined as any bleeding within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy), who have more than double the normal odds of a miscarriage*, progesterone supplements appear to cut the risk of miscarriage in half, and oral progesterone, as opposed to suppositories, may be especially effective.

So, although I will never know for sure, my OB may have saved my pregnancy.

A Subchorionic Hematoma

At that initial visit, she also performed an ultrasound. The fetal heartbeat was loud and clear, fast and reassuring, racing along like a rabbit’s. When I heard my baby’s heartbeat, I fully exhaled for the first time in days.

Less reassuringly, the ultrasound revealed a subchorionic hematoma–a blood clot next to the placenta and the cause of my bleeding.

Pregnancies with a subchorionic hematoma are considered high risk. They have a higher risk of miscarriage (17.6% versus 8.9%), stillbirth (1.9% versus 0.9%), and placental abruption (3.6% versus 0.7%). They have a slightly higher risk of preterm delivery (13% versus 10%) and for the waters breaking before labor starts (tv-style labor).

The risk varies by the location of the hematoma. Pregnancies with recurrent bleeding or with hematomas located between the placenta and the uterine wall (retroplacental hematomas) have a higher risk of miscarriage and other pregnancy complications like placenta abruption. Because of the risk of placental abruption, bleeding in the second and third trimesters require immediate medical attention.

As worrisome as these statistics sound, most subchorionic hematomas resolve on their own, as mine eventually did. By 11 weeks, we could no longer see the hematoma on an ultrasound. And thankfully, rest of my pregnancy was uneventful. I gave birth to healthy baby girl, who in a few months will turn 3.

Do you have a story of bleeding in early pregnancy? Was a cause detected, and how did things turn out?

Footnote

*About 20% of women experience bleeding during early pregnancy. Figuring out their chances of a miscarriage is far from simple.

One commonly cited statistic states that roughly 50% of these women eventually miscarry. Some digging reveals that this claim derives from a 1981 obstetrics textbook rather than recent research. (Lots of researchers cite papers that cite papers that cite this textbook, and I am willing to bet that none of them have read the original research behind this claim.)

If bleeding starts after detection of a normal fetal heartbeat, most prospective studies find a much lower rate of miscarriage, of 3.4-5.5%.

References

Haas DM, Ramsey PS. Progestogen for preventing miscarriage. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 10. Art. No.: CD003511. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003511.pub3.

Nagy S, Bush M, Stone J, Lapinski RH, Gardó S. Clinical significance of subchorionic and retroplacental hematomas detected in the first trimester of pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol. 2003 Jul;102(1):94-100.

Sotiriadis A, Papatheodorou S, Makrydimas G. Threatened miscarriage: evaluation and management. BMJ : British Medical Journal. 2004;329(7458):152-155.

Trop I, Levine D. Hemorrhage during pregnancy: sonography and MR imaging. AJR Am J Roentgenol. 2001 Mar;176(3):607-15.

Tuuli MG, Norman SM, Odibo AO, Macones GA, Cahill AG. Perinatal outcomes in women with subchorionic hematoma: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obstet Gynecol. 2011 May;117(5):1205-12. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0b013e31821568de.

Age and the Risk of Miscarriage

As women, we hear a lot about the difficulty of getting pregnant as we age, but staying pregnant can often be the bigger challenge, especially as our fertility begins to wane.

The risk of miscarriage rises as a woman ages, with a dramatic rise starting after age 37, with the steepest increase occurring after age 40. By age 45, less than 20% of all recognized pregnancies are viable.

The man’s age matters too. Having a partner over the age of 40 significantly raises the chances of a miscarriage.

Over half of miscarriages are caused by genetic abnormalities. As women age, chromosomal defects in their eggs become increasingly common. On average, a woman in her early 20s will have chromosomal abnormalities in about 17% of her eggs; this percentage jumps to nearly 80% by a woman’s early 40s. And as men age, chromosomal defects and point mutations–changes to a single nucleotide in their DNA–become increasingly common.

How The Chances of Miscarriage Vary By Age Continue reading “Age and the Risk of Miscarriage”

Lies, Damned Lies, and Miscarriage Statistics

Trying to figure out your chances of miscarrying? Sadly, you are going to have a hard time finding good information. 

Many websites claim to tell you your risk of miscarriage, citing statistics that look like these:

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 12.50.51 PM

But problems abound with their numbers.

Problem 1: These sites rarely provide their sources, so you cannot tell whether their information is reliable.

Problem 2: These sites do not breakdown miscarriage risk by other known risk factors, like the mother’s age.

Problem 3: Nearly all these sites derive their statistics from just two small studies, one which tracked 222 women from conception through just the first 6 weeks of pregnancy, and another which tracked 697 pregnancies, but only after a fetal heartbeat had been detected–a key point, because heartbeat detection dramatically lowers the chances of a miscarriage.

The lack of good information frustrated me when I was pregnant, and I bet it frustrates you too. So I have compiled a summary of the best research on risk of miscarriage. Where possible, I break down the risk by…

Edit: I also have a new post on how morning sickness signals a lower risk.

Continue reading “Lies, Damned Lies, and Miscarriage Statistics”

The Fertility Cliff at Age 35 is a Myth

Several years ago, before I was married or had even begun dating my husband-to-be, I was chatting with a reproductive endocrinologist about when I needed to worry about my fertility going into decline. I was about to turn 30. Should I be worried? And how many quality reproductive years did I have left?

She told me most women were fine at 30 or 35. At her clinic, she said, she rarely saw women with problems related to “advanced ovarian age” before they turned 37 or 38.

I was surprised, to say the least. Like so many women, I had heard ad nauseam about “getting pregnant after 35.”

Despite all the chatter, I was not actually clear on why 35 was an important cutoff. Was it because getting pregnant was more difficult after 35? Or staying pregnant became challenging after 35? Or was that the age when the risk of chromosomal abnormalities like Down’s syndrome rose dramatically?

It turns out that none of these reasons are correct. Because in fact there is no reason; age 35 is not actually a cliff. It is not even a sharp bend in the curve, a point at which birth rates go into a steep decline. Those sharp bends come later, after 37, and again after 40.

So why has age 35 been etched into our consciousness? Continue reading “The Fertility Cliff at Age 35 is a Myth”