Guidelines for pregnancy: what's an acceptable risk, and how is the evidence (finally) shaping up?

Drug Alcohol Rev. 2012 Mar;31(2):170-83. doi: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2011.00331.x. Epub 2011 Sep 29.


Issues: The lack of consensus about whether low to moderate levels of prenatal alcohol exposure are a risk factor for fetal development has generated considerable debate about what advice policies and guidelines should provide.

Approach: This paper reviews the evidence from systematic reviews and meta-analyses examining the risk from low and moderate levels of prenatal alcohol exposure, along with the results of articles published 2009-2010, after the reviews.

Key findings: The reported significant effects from low levels of prenatal alcohol exposure are likely due to methodological issues such as confounding and/or misclassification of exposure or outcome and there is no strong research evidence of fetal effects from low levels of alcohol exposure. However, harm is well-documented with heavy exposure and moderate levels of exposure, 30-40 g per occasion and no more than 70 g per week, have been demonstrated to increase the risk of child behaviour problems.

Implications: With such a small margin before there is increased risk to the fetus, it would be morally and ethically unacceptable for policies and guidelines to condone consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Not all women will follow this advice and some women will inadvertently consume alcohol prior to pregnancy awareness requiring non-judgmental counselling and the provision of rational advice about the likelihood of risk to the fetus.

Conclusions: The policy advice that 'the safest choice for pregnant women is to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy' should be maintained. However, the abstinence message needs to be presented in a balanced and rational manner to prevent unintended negative consequences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects*
  • Alcohol Drinking / prevention & control
  • Child
  • Epidemiologic Research Design
  • Female
  • Fetus / drug effects
  • Guidelines as Topic*
  • Health Policy
  • Humans
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / prevention & control*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / prevention & control
  • Risk Factors