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NZ Women Continuing to Drink During Pregnancy

13 July 2006

New Zealand Women Continuing to Drink During Pregnancy

A University of Otago survey reveals New Zealand women are not getting the message that no alcohol should be consumed during pregnancy. More than half the women surveyed believed some alcohol was safe to drink while pregnant.

Previous Ministry of Health guidelines said alcohol was not recommended during pregnancy. The Ministry’s new guidelines recommend total abstinence from alcohol by pregnant women.

The University of Otago multidisciplinary study entitled “Alcohol in pregnancy” surveyed a representative sample of 1256 women aged 16 to 40 years from around New Zealand about alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

The baseline study, carried out by researchers Sherly Parackal and Elaine Ferguson of the Department of Human Nutrition, Dr Mathew Parackal of the Department of Marketing and Mr John Harraway of Department of Mathematics and Statistics, was funded by the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand (ALAC) and the Ministry of Health.

Both organisations recommend abstinence from alcohol consumption in pregnancy, with research failing to establish a safe level of alcohol consumption by pregnant women.

On examining the opinions of New Zealand women on alcohol consumption in pregnancy, only 40 per cent were of the opinion that women should abstain altogether from drinking during pregnancy. Half of the women surveyed were of the opinion that one drink or less was safe to be consumed on a typical drinking occasion in pregnancy.

Alarmingly, the survey revealed that nearly 20 per cent of the women binged at some time during their pregnancy. Seventeen percent had done so before they realised they were pregnant.

Researcher Dr Sherly Parackal says this demonstrates that the message is not getting through that no alcohol should be consumed by pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant, a sentiment supported by ALAC Chief Executive Officer Dr Mike MacAvoy.

“Alcohol is known to be one of the main causes of brain damage in the unborn baby. And unfortunately the damage can be done before the woman knows she is pregnant. Any woman who is planning a pregnancy or pregnant should stop alcohol altogether as the new national guidelines from the Ministry of Health make clear.

“I am pleased there is now a clear recommendation to all medical practitioners and hopeful that the sometimes conflicting advice given to women in the past will now be eliminated.”

While the results showed that New Zealand women generally have “good awareness” of the effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, but that this awareness does not necessarily translate into changes in behaviour.

For example, 76 per cent the women spontaneously stated “stop use of alcohol” as a maternal behaviour to increase the changes of a healthy baby. However, more than half of all the women surveyed believed some alcohol was safe to drink in pregnancy.

Dr Parackal says the challenge facing women of childbearing age is to stop alcohol consumption before pregnancy occurs.

The study found that 53 percent of women who had been pregnant in the five years leading up to the survey or who were pregnant during the survey period reported they had consumed some alcohol during their pregnancy.

Of this group, 40 per cent had consumed alcohol before they found out they were pregnant and subsequently stopped, but 13 per cent reported they had continued to drink during their pregnancy.

Nearly 20 per cent of all women reported they had binged (drank 5+ drinks - women aged below 18 years or 7+ drinks - women aged above 18 years) at some time during their pregnancy, 17 percent having done so before they realised they were pregnant. The study found women aged 16-24 years had higher odds of binge drinking during pregnancy than women of older age categories.

Three out of four women surveyed stated spontaneously that women should “stop use of alcohol in pregnancy” to ensure they had a healthy baby. One in four women stated that they may drink some alcohol in their future pregnancy.

When asked about preferred sources of information about effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, 40 per cent of respondents rated ‘negative effects’ warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers highly.

“It is evident from this research that not all of our women are aware of the negative effects of alcohol consumption in pregnancy. Educational materials and campaigns to improve awareness need to be designed and directed at various target groups identified in this research. The results of this research has provided the baseline information to which regular updates based on suitable interventions and monitoring must be made,” says Dr Mathew Parackal.

Dr MacAvoy says an application has been lodged with Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) for health advisory labels to be placed on alcoholic beverage containers advising of the potential danger of consuming alcohol while pregnant or when planning to become pregnant.


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