What’s behind the new pregnancy warnings on alcohol labels?

Alcohol bottles will soon carry labels warning against drinking while pregnant. Here’s why.

It’s a controversial area, with women receiving mixed messages about whether it is safe to drink even a little alcohol while pregnant.

Is that occasional glass of wine safe for an unborn baby? Or can even low-level drinking affect a child’s health during pregnancy?

After years of lobbying by various health organisations, alcohol products in Australia and New Zealand will soon carry warning labels that state that if you’re a mum-to-be, there is no safe drinking level.

What are the risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy?

Alcohol can disturb the healthy growth of an embryo or foetus, potentially damaging the brain and other organs.

Research shows an unborn child is most vulnerable to the effects of alcohol during early pregnancy, but those harmful effects can last the entire nine months.

One of the key risks of drinking alcohol when pregnant is foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

“Around one third of all Australian women drink at least some alcohol during pregnancy,” says Dr Gino Pecoraro, federal Australian Medical Association spokesperson for obstetrics and gynaecology.

He says this may be because around 50 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned, so women drink in the early stages of pregnancy without realising they are carrying a child.

alcohol and pregnancy

What is foetal alcohol spectrum disorder?

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder can lead to a range of cognitive, behavioural and physical issues for a child.

These include facial abnormalities, impaired growth, limb defects and speech and language delays.

“An affected child can have an abnormal appearance with a small head as well as intellectual impairment, behavioural difficulties and problems with hearing and sight,” says Dr Pecoraro.

“Based on international studies, it’s been proposed that FASD affects around 2 to 5 per cent of the general population, but figures as high as 12 per cent have been reported in some high-risk indigenous communities.”

How will alcohol warning labels help?

Dr Melissa Stoneham, director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute based at Curtin University, says mandatory pregnancy labelling on alcohol is a useful step in reducing harm to unborn babies and newborns.

“While the prevailing social norm is for women to avoid alcohol during pregnancy, some believe that consuming small amounts of alcohol occasionally during pregnancy may not be considered harmful,” she says.

“FASD is the most common and preventable cause of serious brain injury in children in Australia. There is no cure for FASD – so prevention is everything.”

Where to get more information

Expecting? Read more on how to look after yourself during pregnancy, the unexpected pregnancy side effects no one tells you about and three steps to a positive birth.

Written by Sarah Marinos