Alcohol guidance 'not about policing pregnant women's behaviour', midwives say

Pregnancy Stock
Pregnancy Stock

Leading midwives have reiterated guidance for pregnant women to avoid drinking alcohol after it was suggested advice on the subject could lead to "anxiety" among expectant mothers.

Government guidance issued last year states that "no level of alcohol is safe to drink in pregnancy".

Previously, it was recommended that pregnant women should limit themselves to no more than one or two units once or twice a week. But officials altered the advice "to provide greater clarity as a precaution".

However, some academics are expected to say that scrutiny about a pregnant women's drinking habits could "create anxiety and impair ordinary social interaction".

At a conference, Policing Pregnancy: Who Should be a Mother?, which is being held at Canterbury Christ Church University, academics will discuss the evidence behind the advice.

Ellie Lee, director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, who will be speaking at the conference, said: "Official advice about drinking in pregnancy has gone down an overtly precautionary route.

"Evidence that suggests the odd drink, or even more than that, has no impact on child outcomes is interpreted as 'insufficiently robust' and any level of drinking is now associated with 'possible harm'. As proving 'complete safety' is entirely impossible, where does this leave pregnant women?

"The scrutiny and oversight of their behaviour the official approach invites is not benign. It creates anxiety and impairs ordinary social interaction.

"And the exclusion of women from an ordinary activity on the basis of 'precaution' can more properly be called sexist than benign."

Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which helped to organise the conference, said: "We need to think hard about how risk is communicated to women on issues relating to pregnancy.

"There can be real consequences to overstating evidence, or implying certainty when there isn't any.

"Doing so can cause women needless anxiety and alarm, sometimes to the point that they consider ending an unplanned but not unwanted pregnancy because of fears they have caused irreparable harm.

"But just as importantly, it assumes women cannot be trusted to understand risk, and when it comes to alcohol, the difference between low and heavy consumption. Women don't stop being people with the capacity and the right to make their own informed choices just because they are pregnant."

Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said: "The RCM's advice has always been clear and unequivocal; if you are thinking of becoming pregnant or are pregnant, then it is best to avoid alcohol.

"This advice is not about policing pregnant women's behaviour, it is about giving them unbiased information and enabling them to make the choice that is right for them.

"Cumulative and regular alcohol consumption in pregnancy could have an impact on the health and well-being of mother and baby.

"If pregnant women have concerns about their level of alcohol consumption in pregnancy, it is important that midwives support them by answering questions in a non-judgemental way and based on the evidence."