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Drinking in Pregnancy: When Is Enough, Enough?

28/02/2014 16:46 GMT | Updated 30/04/2014 10:59 BST

Unless you are one of those rare women who unwittingly go into labour assuming they've had indigestion and a few big meals, most women know pretty early on pregnancy that their body isn't no longer their own.

For me, I knew the aliens had landed well before the second line on the test went pink, so sore were my boobs, my hipbones already clicking; add to that the food coma I was falling into after meals and I was aware by early January that yes, that Christmas day shag, pickled in Prosecco and sherry, had indeed made a baby. But this was my second child. I knew the signs by then.

With my first it was different. Still a carefree student, I was busy juggling London life, study, and a wonderful relationship with a solvent man, carefree enough to forget my pill, working like a demon in the month up to my journalism finals.

Too stressed out to notice my period was a few days late, as I struggled to focus on my media law exam, a nagging worry kept interrupting my thoughts. Rather than go for celebratory drinks afterwards, I bought a test and went home to meet my boyfriend, Tom, who had moved in only five months before. I was pregnant with our son Jonah.

It's a tale as old as time, and as common as a cold. But even though it wasn't wholly a surprise, like I many students, I'd been drinking like a fish. I look back in horror to the nights I spent drunk before I knew I was pregnant. There was that night I went to a gig with my sister, and ended up in a gay bar in Soho; the surprise party for Tom where we got everyone pole-dancing before the night was done. There was that night that I was sick on the street after mainlining vodka shots and (horror of horrors) one night we stayed up till dawn doing Christ knows what with Tom's banking colleagues. And even though racked my brain going back over the dates to pinpoint exactly when it might have been that I conceived, it does little to alleviate my guilt.

A recent article by Emma Barnett in the Telegraph, about her judgement of women who drink while pregnant raises a pertinent issue: are the rights of the unborn child to a healthy start more important than the mother-to-be's right to drink? Citing the case of a barman who refused to serve alcohol to a pregnant woman, she believes people should feel more comfortable exercising their concern for the unborn child in this way. But is she, a woman yet to have children, right to judge women who drink in pregnancy at all, or should the law in fact go further protect babies from their mother's choices?

According to the article, there are approximately 7000 cases of foetal alcohol syndrome a year. And given modern drinking habits, that number may be rising. So is it time to replace guidelines for women consuming alcohol in pregnancy -currently no more than one or two units a week - with laws? Or would legislating against alcohol consumption in pregnancy create more problems than it solves?

The fact that your body is not your own for nine months - and afterwards if you choose to breastfeed - is self-evident to most women. But even those with the best of intentions occasionally slip up. When they do, believe me, they punish themselves enough, without having the levy of the law on their shoulders. What would be the consequences for women if our bodies were considered were taken out of our own hands for the duration of our pregnancies?

One of problems is women today drink more than previous generations. I don't know many of our parents was out drinking Jagermeister on a casual Tuesday night, although many more may have casually smoked 20 Silk Cut a day. The damage we can do unwittingly is frightening - and no one seems prepared to give an accurate assessment of the risk moderate alcohol consumption in pregnancy may cause. Even the experts are divided.

The jury's out on the amount of alcohol women can safely drink in pregnancy without harming their baby. Since I had my children, I've read newspaper headlines suggesting anything from one unit a day to no alcohol at all can be considered safe. Some even maintain alcohol in moderation could be beneficial. No one really knows. The fact is, as my midwives said to me, most babies are conceived in a sea of alcohol. They wouldn't get made otherwise. My midwives (private, not NHS, predictably) even recommended a glass or two of wine in labour to help me relax, but all it did was make me vomit.

But until modern times, beer was often safer to drink than water, so there may be a case that foetuses, especially in the west where beer was preferred to tea, have evolved to tolerate alcohol in utero. Certainly hearsay is mixed. My aunt told me it was perfectly acceptable to drink in pregnancy, as long as it was champagne. Personally, I felt weird after even a small glass. After a rocky start, my body was telling me to stay in control.

But having a social drink - even frequently throughout your pregnancy, is a different kettle of fish to battling an addiction. But the moment a women's right to choose how to conduct themselves while pregnant becomes controlled by law, then we are the in the realm of losing ownership of our bodies - and that has to be a dangerous thing. The recent case of the Italian woman living in the UK whose baby was forcibly removed by caesarean and taken away before she came full term - on orders of her local council - because she suffered from mental health problems springs to mind.

But alongside the difficulties policing alcohol consumption in pregnancy (would we legislate against women who have two drinks a week instead of one? Imprison those whose babies are born with foetal alcohol syndrome? What about those who don't know they are pregnant, or aren't showing yet? Where do we draw the line?) we have to ask ourselves how punitive measures against the mothers whose choices (itself a spurious concept in my book) damage their unborn child - be it smoking , drinking or drugs - is going to be a positive step for anyone involved. Surely, if society is judged against how we treat our most vulnerable, the only way to make the best of a bad fist is a to be supportive of both mother and child?

Pregnancy is an additional stress factor for any women whatever their circumstances. Regardless of their background or intentions, anyone can react in any number of ways. I'm not suggesting women go out and get trollied in order to deal with the very real anxieties, pain and trauma associated with pregnancy. But if we start saying only fit, healthy, sober women are allowed to have babies, then where does it end? Should only solvent women be allowed to have children? What about clever women ? Middle-class women? Attractive women? Only those with a supportive partner? And what about men? Surely they should be doing their part before conception. Should we start judging fertile men for failing to eat a balanced diet; failing to curb their beer habit in the run up to conception? I'm quite sure both affect sperm quality, but I'd love to see them try to legislate for THIS. It's the thin end of a wedge.

There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Until you have children of your own, like Emma Barnett in the Telegraph, it's very easy to have (literally) pre-conceived notions of how you will be as a mother, to imagine cultivating a stress-free pregnancy full of yoga classes and organic veggies. But until you have been there and lived it, you're in La La land.

I don't know many mums who don't do the best they can for their kids- yet unborn or screaming to high heaven - but that best will be different depending on their circumstances, outlook and priorities, and there's no changing that without increasing social equality. Besides which, where social drinking is concerned, I don't know where class lines are drawn, but wine o'clock is, in my experience, a yummy mummy stalwart.

And as a young mum, whose first baby was unplanned, I still wanted absolutely the best start for my son, once I knew he had begun. But all the doses of fish oil and acidophilus in the world can't remove the nagging doubt that somehow I may have damaged him before I knew I was pregnant. As soon as I knew, I went into holier-than-thou mode, barely touching booze, except perhaps very diluted with fizzy water, for the remainder of my pregnancy. But as I search my beautiful son for the tell-tale inverted crescents at the corner of his eyes, called epicanthic folds - visible signs of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome - I can believe to myself they are there regardless of the fact I can see the same inverted crescents on the eyes of my cousins' little boy; on a photograph of my great-great grandfather with the same stern gaze as Jonah.

I was upfront with the doctor who confirmed Jonah's pregnancy at around six weeks about my alcohol consumption. He tried to alleviate my fears, telling me his wife didn't realise she was pregnant until she was five months gone. "We just don't know what the effects might be," he said, but you are far from the only one who gets drunk before they realise they are pregnant. Other mums I know agree: "Don't worry. We all did it;" "They're not hooked up to your blood supply in the first month. They are in a separate bag." Jonah may have been born a good weight, with no delay in his speech or language and no other visible markers of FSA, such as a small head, or a flattened groove between nose and mouth. But my son has Asperger's syndrome -a genetic and environmental condition of which doctors can't agree a single cause - and blaming myself seems to be part of part of the process.

But even after all that guilt, when my second pregnancy was over, I heaved a sigh of relief and treated myself to a glass or two of Cloudy Bay, baby clamped to my nipple and resolutely ignore anyone who dared give me the mildest look of reproach. After all when you've been up three times a night for the best part of three years, you begin to realise that it isn't what's best for baby that's best for anyone. It's what's best for you. And if that means relaxing with a small glass of wine, whatever stage of motherhood you may be at, then it's probably not going to do anyone any more harm than resentfully going cold turkey (and probably binging as soon as you get the chance.)