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Drinking During Pregnancy: The Ultimate Taboo

When was the last time you saw a pregnant woman sipping a beer? If you are North American, the answer might be. You might also be surprised to learn that in much of Europe, it's actually not unusual at all. Now, more and more women I know are choosing not to totally abstain from alcohol during their pregnancies. And everyone in their lives are completely losing their minds about it.
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When was the last time you saw a pregnant woman sipping a beer? If you are North American, the answer might be never. You might also be surprised to learn that in much of Europe, it's actually not unusual at all. Now, more and more women I know are choosing not to totally abstain from alcohol during their pregnancies.

Now, obviously I'm a man, and will never fully appreciate what it is like being pregnant. Both the physiological and psychological realities are, at best, things I can only imagine. That being said, I am a father of two wonderful kids, and was with my wife during both pregnancies (and the lengthy process of fertility treatment leading up to both). I am anything but puritanical in my views on drinking. I have no ethical problems with kids in bars, kids getting a sip of beer or wine here or there, kids hanging out at breweries, etc. I think that so much of what is perceived as "common sense" in terms of drinking habits is just learned behaviours from a culture that is still hobbled by prohibition.

So what do I think about women drinking while pregnant?

Well before I even get to what I think, I'll say, I imagine one of the worst parts of a women being pregnant is the way that our society seems to feel you somehow become our possession. They are free to touch you, tell you how tired/awful you look, and tell you why you're probably sentencing your child to a future of poor health and developmental delay. These privileges should only be for close friends and family. Which is to say, if you believe a woman is making a poor decision in terms of her's and the baby's health, but you don't know her middle name, say, or the name of her first pet or what her favourite food is, keep your damn mouth shut. Hopefully, if she is making a bad choice, she has people in her life who will call her on it.

Now then, about drinking while pregnant:

Yes, there is a stigma attached to it, and people have no trouble telling you off in public if you do it. There are so many things wrong with this I don't have time to address it. It is natural that there is going to be a push-back from women who want to subvert that, I totally can understand that. But I'm not particularly comfortable with that either.

Opinions about "safe" amounts vary from country to country. This is true about things other than alcohol; most North American doctors will tell pregnant women not to eat sushi. Most Japanese doctors would encourage it. So many of the studies about drinking don't make a fine enough distinction to provide answers for a women thinking of an occasional glass of wine. Most studies about FASD are dealing with people drinking large quantities of alcohol, and who often have other substance abuse problems. But we also know that there are cases of it where the woman might only have had a single drink. This leads to the sensationalizing that many prohibitionist groups do. "Don't even use mouthwash!" With the exception of the aforementioned groups, I think most people would agree that women could use more studies, to aid in their decisions. Rarely does more information hurt.

But we don't have that, and we have so many conflicting opinions and "answers". So what is a woman to do?

When my wife was pregnant with our first child, her hairdresser asked about adding some funky blue and purple highlights to her hair. At the time we hadn't gone public with the news, so Erika feigned being in a hurry, and said maybe next time. She then asked her wonderful OB/GYN about it. Her advice was pretty simple: There are no studies that prove damage caused by hair dye. There are heaps of internet horror stories, and the manufacturers recommend against it, but still; no real "proof". But, why do it, if it's not necessary? If the child ended up having some type of developmental problem, even if it didn't remotely relate to hair dye, odds were Erika would feel terribly guilty about it, and for what? A few colour streaks in her hair. This is the same obstetrician who suggested Erika have a cup of coffee or tea every morning because she had very low blood pressure, and caffeine would naturally help boost that. Again, she said there simply wasn't enough evidence of harm caused by occasional minimal caffeine-consumption, but in this case, the benefits were obvious.

She then pointed out that nobody tells pregnant women not to fly, yet to get on an airplane you get bombarded with all manner of radiation (particularly if you're getting a body scan) and you're standing a few feet away from massive x-rays that scan your handbags. Nobody would tell a pregnant woman to stop commuting to work, but sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic means you're breathing in heaps of carbon monoxide. Every single decision a woman makes, even before she's pregnant, is going to impact the development of her child. A lot of the decisions have much more dire consequences than an occasional beer or glass of wine.

So, as a woman, do you drink while pregnant? Obviously, I think that's up to you. Because of our difficulty even conceiving, my wife opted only to have a very occasional few sips of wine with a meal, maybe a half-glass at a time at most. She also forwent some of the testing that can be done to flag for things like Downs Syndrome, etc, because of the potential for complications. She changed her diet and some of her lifestyle choices, again trying to reduce the potential for complications wherever possible. She went pretty hardcore, but that doesn't mean that I think every woman ought to do that either. Every woman (ideally supported by her partner) needs to find her own way. Weighing the immediate benefit vs the long term possibilities. I know it's easy for a man to say this, but I would hope most women, given the admitted lack of real clarity on the subject, would choose to minimize or eliminate alcohol from their pregnancies; I also hope they decide to quit smoking and stop flying places when they find out they're pregnant (or when they decide to start trying to conceive). I hope they limit or remove processed foods from their diets and focus on eating whole grains, organic fruits and vegetables, and dairy and proteins raised without antibiotics or growth-hormones.

But honestly, it's not my business. And unless it's somebody you love, it's not yours either.