There are still a substantial number of healthcare professionals who tell their pregnant patients that drinking moderately is safe, says Dr. Mengel. He notes that it can take time for practice to catch up with research. "A lot of this work has been done just in the last 10 to 15 years, and even thought it seems like that would make it into practice relatively easily, it doesn't."
This may change as US public health officials release new information. In fact, current US Surgeon General Richard Carmoda recently updated the office's advisory on pregnancy and drinking to say that no amount of alcohol consumption can be considered safe.
"When all these studies show consistently that low-level drinking has some effect—you have to believe it," says Dr. Mengel. "You just have to believe that there is some risk there. It's not a huge risk, it is not a big risk, but it is there."
Making the Decision
Laura Nickelson says passing on the occasional glass of wine or beer wasn't difficult during her pregnancies. Nickelson, a mom of two in Monroe, Louisiana, is also a psychologist who works with adults with developmental disabilities. "I've seen firsthand what drinking during pregnancy can do to a person. I know women who had a drink or two, or more, while they were pregnant, and their children turned out fine; but I personally was never willing to take that chance."
"The thing about using any drug during pregnancy—and alcohol is essentially a drug—is that we always have to do what's called a risk/benefit analysis," says Dr. Joel Evans, MD, director of the Center for Women's Health in Darien, Connecticut, and author of The Whole Pregnancy Handbook. "What are the risks of using this drug, and do the benefits outweigh the risk? There's absolutely no health benefit to alcohol, and there are some theoretical risks."
What If You Drink before You Know?
So, what happens if you find out your pregnant the week after your sister's wedding or just days after you and your partner indulge in a decadent dinner and drinks, should you be worried? "If a woman takes an occasional drink before she knows she is pregnant, it probably won't harm her baby," says the March of Dimes.
Tanya Murphy found herself in such a situation. She learned she was expecting shortly after the holidays. "I drank wine at a Christmas party before I knew I was pregnant," says Murphy, of Haughton, Louisiana. "I was so concerned that could have caused [my son] some damage." Murphy's baby, born the next August, was unharmed by the holiday drink.
The important thing to remember is that once you do know you're pregnant, it is time to focus on your and your baby-to-be's health. It's probably best to skip the champagne and have an extra dessert instead.