“I don’t know” and “yes” are very different things. “I don’t know if my child is allergic to peanuts” does not mean, “yes, I should feed my child peanuts.” “I don’t know if this berry is poisonous” does not mean, “yes, I should eat this berry.” And “I don’t know if light drinking will harm my pregnancy” does not mean, “I should drink alcohol while I’m pregnant.”
New research published recently in BMJ Open set off a flurry of coverage this past week with various news outlets confused about what to do with the findings. That study from a team of UK scientists scraped through the scienceverse looking for papers on the effects of just light or moderate drinking on pregnancy outcomes. Its conclusion was, almost literally, we don’t know:
“Evidence of the effects of drinking ≤32 g/week in pregnancy is sparse.” (32 g of alcohol is approximately two drinks.)
But that didn’t stop some outlets from proclaiming that, in fact, drinking a little bit during pregnancy is fine. This is shit advice. The New York Post and The Independent both wrote that it “does not harm” the unborn baby, and Refinery29 “reminded” us that it’s apparently fine. In fact, the BMJ Open paper explicitly says not to do that: “Describing the paucity of current research and explaining that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, appears warranted.”
In this case, the researchers went hunting for papers and were surprised by just how few studies have tried to gauge the effect of low alcohol levels on the outcomes of pregnancy. They found only 24, but were unable to collect enough data to make any real conclusions. Ultimately, they’re hoping to find if there is some safe limit for drinking during pregnancy. After all, heavy drinking during pregnancy can lead to foetal alcohol syndrome, birth defects, and neurological problems. And this new paper still finds evidence that the foetuses of pregnant mothers who drank some alcohol were more likely to be small for their age.
This science paper was not meant for you—it was a call to researchers that this is something that needs further studying. If you’d like to drink lightly during your pregnancy, there’s obviously nothing stopping you. But doctors shouldn’t be recommending that you do. Instead, they should be telling you that they don’t know whether or not it will be good for the baby. [BMJ Open]