The CDC recommendation says that even women who might become pregnant should abstain from drinking alcohol. But with 61 million women in the U.S. of reproductive age, is that realistic?
Recommendations surrounding women's health before, during, and after pregnancy haven't always been straightforward or easy to digest. Prime example: Whether or not it's safe to drink during pregnancy and how much? To take a closer look at what's really going on, Katherine Hartmann, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of the Institute for Medicine and Public Health at Vanderbilt University, went searching for answers—real numbers indicating whether women, specifically newly pregnant women, were actually pouring themselves that glass of red wine.
Hartmann's research, which was published in the April 2017 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology, comes after a public firestorm arose when the CDC issued a new recommendation that all women who are planning a pregnancy or not using reliable contraception should abstain from alcohol use entirely. That's a pretty sweeping call-to-action, considering there are 61 million American women of reproductive age, and about 43 million are considered to be "potentially at risk of becoming pregnant," according to the study. It's also a slightly concerning suggestion, given that past research has found conflicting results as to whether it's actually NBD if a woman has a drink every now and again early on in her pregnancy.
So Hartmann's team analyzed pregnant women's alcohol consumption overall, theorizing that "whether or not it was a planned pregnancy or an unintended one, as soon as people had a positive pregnancy test, they [would] quit," she says. That way, rather than looking at whether or not alcohol is safe in the early conception window, they would find out what habits these pregnant women had in the first place.
Hartmann and her colleagues looked at more than 5,000 female participants enrolled in the Right From the Start program, a study of early pregnancy health conducted in eight different cities around the country. When the women involved found out they were pregnant, the results showed an incredible 90 percent stopped drinking alcohol entirely, while another 8 percent made some sort of reduction of their intake.
Their findings imply that access to inexpensive pregnancy tests—with encouragement to take the test shortly after a missed period—could actually be a stronger preventative strategy to limiting alcohol exposure to the fetus than what the CDC's preemptive recommendation. Plus, the findings support the notion that you don't necessarily have to give up booze entirely just because you're thinking about becoming pregnant. (Although, it's worth reading why one woman decided to drink during her pregnancy.) Just be smart about your contraception methods, and if you're not looking to get pregnant anytime soon, make sure you're still practicing safe sex. (Here's how to find the best birth control for you.)
As for how much women can or should drink during pregnancy, that's Hartmann's next area of study. While we wait for (hopefully) a more concrete answer than the loose suggestions given in the past, here's an infographic that lays out Hartmann's current findings.