Opinion: A couple of drinks when you're pregnant really isn't that bad

OPINION: When I was pregnant, did I ever receive a lot of advice. Family, friends, books, strangers - everyone has a demand to put on your body, and god help you woman if you're caught not following their rules.

"I hope that isn't for you," said a stranger in a coffee shop. "Do you miss sushi?" asked a friend, not knowing what yesterday's lunch consisted of. Softly boiled eggs, cold cuts, blue cheese. Everything draws comment, everything is verboten.

Don't touch cold meats for fear of listeria, don't dye your hair in case the chemicals reach the foetus. Even spa pools are out, lest you cook your baby alive, presumably.  

Some of this is okay advice, some of it is nonsense. But the barrage is real: constant, invasive, infantilising and exhausting.

There's one rule however, that most people agree with - pregnant women should not consume alcohol.

This week, the Daily Mail published a list of SHOCKING reasons pregnant women REFUSE to ditch alcohol (always with the caps, lest we miss the shaming).      

Apparently Whisper, an anonymous confessions app, has revealed a list of reasons pregnant women gave for drinking alcohol, including such sad statements as "Three sips of wine is all that keeps me sane" and "I feel guilty because good mums lose babies every day".

No one is arguing that the effects of excessive alcohol on a foetus can be devastating - statistics back that up. Women who binge drink (that's more than five drinks in one session) are more likely to have babies with physical symptoms and cognitive deficits such as language delays, low birth weights and physical abnormalities.

But the science doesn't stack up with light to moderate drinking. Studies have shown time and again that light to moderate drinking while pregnant - that's about two drinks a week in the first trimester, and up to one drink a day in the second and third trimesters - is fine. The measure is a small glass of wine (120mL), 30mL of hard spirits, or 350mL of beer, so hold the margaritas.

Emily Oster, author of Expecting Better - a pregnancy guide that debunks many of the popular myths around pregnancy - explains how the digestion of alcohol works thus:

When drinking, alcohol channels into your digestive system, and then into your bloodstream. Your liver processes the booze into acetaldehyde and then acetate, and the booze leaves the bloodstream. But if you drink quickly, the liver can't keep up, excess acetaldehyde stays in your blood, and that blood is then shared with your placenta and then baby. If too much acetaldehyde is passed to your baby, it can impact tissues and development.

The speed of consumption here is an important factor - six glasses of wine in a week is not the equivalent of six in one night.

But drink slowly, and your body will metabolise the alcohol before it would reach the foetus.

It's a difficult area to study, because the ethics are complicated (scientists couldn't reasonably ask a pregnant woman to drink a set amount each day for the sake of research), but studies have been done, usually based on women's testimonies about how much they consumed while pregnant, and they consistently find that light to moderate drinking while pregnant does not impact a baby negatively.

In fact, just the exact opposite may be true: a 2010 study published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that children of women who drank lightly during pregnancy (that's one to six drinks a week) were actually less likely to have behavioural difficulties than the children of women who didn't drink at all.

An Australian study found that the children of light drinkers had higher than average IQ scores when tested at eight years old.

And a Danish study from 2013 found no impact on the IQs of children whose mothers consumed up to eight drinks a week.

The reasons for these surprising results are unknown, but the point is, as Oster concludes: "There is virtually no evidence that drinking a glass of wine a day has negative impacts on pregnancy or child outcomes."

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health's official recommendation is to "Stop drinking alcohol if you could be pregnant, are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant. There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy."

But in ye olde days, women were prescribed Guinness for its high iron levels. In pubs in London, bartenders don't blink if a pregnant woman enjoys a half pint. My own mother-in-law bought me Mackeson milk stout, which in her time was believed to be a healthy supplement for pregnant women.

I drank alcohol during my pregnancy. A small glass of wine, sipped slowly over an evening. A prosecco and a half at the baby shower. A glass of beer down at the pub with my partner on a Sunday.

And guess what - a perfectly healthy, extraordinarily handsome, exceptionally smart child now shares my home. [Sure, sometimes he exhibits some pretty sociopathic tendencies, but that's all three-year-olds, right?]

So pregnant women: If you want to follow the national guidelines and go teetotal, go right ahead.

And if you want to sip a refreshing glass of rose with your dinner, do that instead.

The point is that it's up to you. You have the right and the reasoning to decide for yourself.

And non pregnant people - take your fishwive's tales, your infantilisation and your draconian restrictions elsewhere, and mind your own body, thanks very much.

Maggie Wicks is Newshub's features editor