This month the Center for Disease Control and Prevention came out with new recommendations telling women of childbearing age that unless they’re using birth control, they shouldn’t drink. Essentially the CDC is saying that if you’re planning to get pregnant or not taking steps to prevent a pregnancy you should completely abstain from alcohol.
The CDC’s message caught some fire online for its blanket call to abstain from drinking alcohol if you’re sexually active and not on birth control, but it also reignited questions about safe amounts of drinking, unplanned pregnancies (about 50 percent of pregnancies in the US are) and the serious risk any use of alcohol can have on a fetus.
The Desert Sun spoke to Dr. Ralph Steiger, a physician at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs who works with high-risk pregnancies, about what women should know
Dr. Ralph Steiger talks about the new recommendations for the CDC that women who could get pregnant should not drink alcohol, at Desert Regional Medical Center on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. (Photo: Lucas Esposito/The Desert Sun)
How significant are these new recommendations from the CDC?
There are different components to the recommendations. The one that you’re hearing the most about is that women shouldn’t drink at all during pregnancy. That’s old. I was surprised when I heard this (is) why there’s being so much attention focused on it.
The CDC is actually taking a little different tactic to that. We’ve pretty much, in the past, kind of discounted the early exposures to alcohol before women knew they were pregnant. Now there’s increasing concern about that.
The original term of fetal alcohol syndrome, which was published some 30 year ago, was really documented in women who were alcoholics. They consumed large amounts of alcohol every day through the pregnancy. And those babies had problems. They had facial defects and they were significantly mentally delayed.
Now they’re opening the spectrum a bit to a new term of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which includes some things that are not necessarily as serious and for which they think lesser degrees of exposure put the babies at risk.
Because of that, they’re becoming concerned about exposure in the first trimester and they are doing this to try to encourage women to do things to avoid even that, such as if you do drink and you’re not using contraception you’re at risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy.
Most women don’t find out they’re pregnant until after about the fourth week. What affects can alcohol have on a fetus in those earliest weeks?
We are concerned primarily with the development of the brain with fetal alcohol syndrome. The brain is vulnerable throughout that entire period of time. But also the heart is affected. The heart is not particularly vulnerable to teratogens [something that can cause a birth defect] after about eight weeks. We generally think it’s completely formed by that point.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Edmonton and Area Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Network.