In 1981, the United States Surgeon General announced that fetal alcohol syndrome – FAS, now often referred to as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders – was a problem caused by maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy, and women should limit how much they drink while pregnant. However, in this announcement, the surgeon general did not specify how much a woman should limit her drinking during pregnancy. In 2005, then US Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona announced that only abstinence from alcohol could prevent FAS.
Since that announcement, research suggests that up to moderate alcohol consumption in pregnancy is less dangerous, but binge drinking, heavy drinking, or alcohol use disorder put the fetus at risk for developmental disorders, learning disabilities, and FAS. Some studies disagree on when it is safe for a woman to drink during pregnancy, suggesting that alcohol increases the risk of miscarriage during the first trimester, and children will have lower birth weights if the mother drinks during the second trimester.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that no amount of alcohol during pregnancy is safe, yet one in 10 soon-to-be-mothers in the United States reports some alcohol use during pregnancy. Actual medical studies over the years, along with self-reported evidence from mothers themselves, tells a more specific story.
Potential Health Benefits of Red Wine
A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry reported that small amounts of red wine can offer some health benefits in general. For example:
- One glass, or 5-ounce serving, of red wine every day can aid weight loss efforts over the course of a year, helping lower body fat and blood sugar levels.
- Red wine appears to offer some protection against Alzheimer’s disease through the antioxidant resveratrol, which protects against cell damage and age-related mental changes.
- Resveratrol also helps with heart health, improving some muscle definition.
- It also protects against stroke and heart disease.
- Quercetin, another antioxidant found in red wine, may protect against some cancers like colon cancer.
- People who drink red wine appear to live longer than people who drink vodka, according to a study spanning 29 years.
It is very important to note that one standard serving, which for wine is five ounces per day – totaling no more than seven drinks per week – is the definition of moderate drinking for most healthcare professionals and institutions. Drinking four or more drinks within two hours is binge drinking, and consuming more than seven drinks per week, or regularly consuming more than one glass of wine per day, may turn into heavy drinking. Beyond moderate drinking, red wine does not offer any health benefits, nor do other alcoholic beverages.
Can women who are pregnant still benefit from moderately consuming red wine, or does this put the child at risk for developmental difficulties? Currently, medical research suggests that women who consume up to one serving of alcohol per day – usually beer or wine – starting in the second trimester are not putting their child at risk. However, stating that moderate drinking is seven servings of alcohol per week, then pushing all those servings into one day, is dangerous because that becomes binge drinking.
Scientific Research on Red Wine during Pregnancy
In general, per studies, it appears that sticking to no more than moderate drinking during pregnancy does not harm the baby, but this may have a lot to do with genetics. Up to 40,000 babies every year are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in the United States, and it is possible that many more children are developmentally delayed, born prematurely or underweight, or experience less severe difficulties later in life due to maternal alcohol consumption.
Anecdotal evidence from before the 1981 surgeon general’s announcement suggested that drinking red wine was good for the unborn child’s circulation. A study published as recently as 2015 found that some midwives even recommended that a pregnant woman could safely drink a glass of wine if she craved it, and that red wine specifically might actually be better for the baby, usually related to brain development rather than circulation. These suggestions may be conflations of the benefits of red wine in moderation while assuming that everyone understands what moderation technically means.
A British study in 2013 appears to be the root of the modern debate about wine and pregnancy. The study surveyed 7,000 children who had reached 10 years old, an age when most developmental problems should have appeared and been diagnosed. Over the course of the study, the mothers’ drinking habits were recorded, then compared to their 10-year-olds’ ability to maintain their balance. Although this measurement is less complex than measuring IQ or physical deformity, it is a way to determine how a child’s brain works in concert with their body. Children who did the best on the study had parents who either abstained entirely from alcohol during pregnancy or drank very little – maybe one or two servings per week.
Children with better balance tended to have mothers who drank moderately versus children of mothers who did not drink at all, but the study suggested that, perhaps, genetics or income may be factors in the child’s health. Women who drank moderately had more of a specific liver enzyme that can break down alcohol – perhaps protecting their baby from placental transfer of toxins from red wine or other drinks. The women who drank moderately also tended to have more education and be middle class, while women who abstained, struggled with heavy drinking, or suffered a few bouts of binge drinking during pregnancy, were lower income and had less education. Income and education levels for the mothers likely influenced how and when children received healthcare.
Still, the study’s suggestion that one serving of wine per day would not harm fetal development has created an uproar among mothers, lawmakers, and medical professionals.
Abstinence Is the Only Sure Way to Prevent FAS
There is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy or even before pregnancy. The CDC found that three out of four women hoping to become pregnant in the near future regularly consume alcohol, which even in moderation increases their risk of miscarriage if they do become pregnant.
The only way to ensure that a baby does not have FAS is to avoid drinking entirely while pregnant. Certainly, more studies are needed to truly understand FAS, genetics, and how other substances may affect fetal development, but many women in the US choose to abstain.
Women who struggle with alcohol use disorder, heavy drinking, binge drinking, or other forms of problem drinking, and who are pregnant or wish to become pregnant, can get help through specialized, evidence-based detox and rehabilitation programs.