Significant numbers of mothers-to-be are not only consuming alcohol but also binge drinking, according to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The CDC report reveals 10% of pregnant women in the US admit to drinking alcohol, and 30% of these women binge drink.

Published in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the figures are based on a nationwide survey carried out using the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), for which data collected via landline and cellphone surveys.

The results show that 10% of pregnant women in the US ages 18-44 have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days.

In addition, 3.1% of pregnant women report binge drinking. For women, binge drinking is defined as four or more alcoholic beverages within about 2 hours.

This means that about 30% of women who consume alcohol during pregnancy engage in binge drinking.

By comparison, among non-pregnant women in the same age group, 53.6% reported drinking alcohol and 18.2% reported binge drinking.

Moreover, the likelihood of pregnant women to be binge drinking was higher than that of non-pregnant women. While pregnant binge drinkers reported an average of 4.6 episodes in 30 days, non-pregnant binge drinkers reported only 3.1.

This could be because women who binge drink during pregnancy are more likely to be alcohol-dependent than the average female binge drinker, and therefore binge drink more frequently.

Among pregnant women, those most likely to be drinking are those ages 35-44 years (18.6%), college graduates (13%) and unmarried women (12.9%).

Risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy puts the unborn child at serious risk. It can lead to birth defects, developmental problems and disabilities, as well as miscarriage, stillbirth and premature delivery.

Coleen Boyle, PhD, director of CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, calls upon women to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy. "It's just not worth the risk," she says.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions that can occur in someone whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. They can manifest as physical, behavioral and/or learning difficulties. Community studies in the US suggest that 2-5% of first grade students might have an FASD.

FASDs are completely preventable: if a woman does not drink alcohol during pregnancy, her child has zero risk of an FASD.

Excessive alcohol use is linked to a range of health and social problems including liver cirrhosis, certain cancers, depression, motor vehicle crashes and violence. Binge drinking additionally increases the risk of alcohol poisoning and alcohol dependence, which has been found to increase significantly with the frequency of binge drinking.

Fast facts about binge drinking
  • 1 in 6 US adults binge drinks about four times a month
  • Binge drinking is most common among 18-34-year-olds
  • Binge drinking is more common among those with household incomes of $75,000 and above.

Learn more about alcoholism

Women who binge drink run the risk of becoming dependent on alcohol, and, therefore, may be unable to give up during pregnancy.

While women are strongly urged not to drink at all during pregnancy, the CDC call for health care systems to offer help to those who drink.

Help for pregnant drinkers

Women who binge drink during pregnancy should be referred by their practitioners for specialized care to help them reduce their intake or stop drinking; those who binge drink but are not alcohol-dependent could be offered alcohol screening and counseling to help them set goals and take steps toward reducing their alcohol consumption.

Limitations to the study include the fact that self-reported alcohol use is generally underreported. More women might have been pregnant but not known, if they were in the first 4 weeks of pregnancy. This would suggest the figures are higher than shown in the data.

Compared with a similar study carried out in 2006-10, there appears to be a slight increase on the figures, but this may be due to improvements in data collection - for example, the addition of cellphones as a medium for the survey.

Cheryl Tan, lead author of the study and an epidemiologist in the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, says:

"Women who are pregnant or might be pregnant should be aware that there is no known safe level of alcohol that can be consumed at any time during pregnancy. All types of alcohol should be avoided, including red or white wine, beer, and liquor."

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that women who smoke are more likely to drink during pregnancy.