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Light Drinking Tied to Increased Preterm Risk

Update Date: Mar 11, 2014 11:45 AM EDT

According to many government agencies, such as the United Kingdom Department of Health and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women who are planning on conceiving or are already pregnant should ideally avoid consuming alcohol. Despite these recommendations, the U.K. guidelines suggest that if women want to drink, having no more than one or two units, equivalent to about one pint, per week should be safe. However, according to a new study conducted in the UK, researches reported that drinking alcohol anytime before or after conception increases one's risk of giving birth preterm.

For this study, the researchers interviewed 1,264 female participants. They gathered information on the participants' drinking patterns before and after conception. They calculated that 53 percent of the women had consumed more than the recommended weekly amount of alcohol within the first trimester. Almost 40 percent of the women reported drinking more than 10 units per week before conception.

The researchers discovered that around 13 percent of the babies born to the study's participants were underweight. 4.4 percent of them were smaller than normal and 4.3 percent had been born preterm. The team estimated that women who drank more than two units within the first three months of pregnancy were two times more likely to give birth prematurely and to have a smaller than normal sized infant. The researchers also found that women who drank alcohol in general, even if the amount was below the limit of two units, were still more likely to have a premature or smaller infant than women who did not drink at all. The researcher reported the same relationship for women who drank more alcohol before conception.

"This is a very sensitive issue, we don't want women who are pregnant now to panic, the individual risk is actually low," Camilla Nykjaer, one of the researchers at the University of Leeds, told the BBC News. "They shouldn't drink, they should stop drinking if they have been drinking during the pregnancy."

The researchers noted that the women who were more likely to drink over the recommended amounts of alcohol tended to be white, older and more educated. They also resided in wealthier neighborhoods.

"While the safest approach would be to choose not to drink at all, small amounts of alcohol, not more than one to two units once or twice a week, have not been shown to be harmful after 12 weeks of pregnancy," Dr. Patrick O'Brien, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said. "Pregnant women should always consult their midwives or doctors if they have any concerns about their alcohol intake."

The study was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

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