Drinking for two?

I wrote this for the July/August 2011 issue of the Michigan Beer Guide, as part of a small series on Women & Craft Beer. This is the longer version of the article. It is reprinted with permission.

You’re enjoying a favorite brew at a local Michigan brewpub when you glace across the room to see an obviously pregnant woman sidle up to the bar. Instead of asking for a glass of water, she orders a honey-hued ale and proceeds, gleefully, to take a sip. Is this woman crazy? Is she the worst mother-to-be imaginable? Doesn’t she care about the health of her unborn child?

There are extremely rigid social mores surrounding alcohol in our country, and perhaps the most severe of these revolve around motherhood. From formal statements issued by health organizations to glaring looks that speak volumes, pregnant and nursing mothers get the message in no uncertain terms: “even one drop of alcohol will endanger your child!” While the impetus behind admonitions of this nature may spring from a sincere desire to keep babies safe, the effect is to make an expectant or breastfeeding mother’s body public property, and to demean her ability to make informed decisions.

Do a quick online search for recommendations on drinking alcohol while pregnant or breastfeeding, and you won’t find many US-based resources that even allow for a few ounces of beer. This total-abstinence policy arose after researchers identified fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) in the 70s; the Surgeon General issued warning statements about drinking during pregnancy soon after. The government made no distinctions about quantity: from that time on, any and all drinking during pregnancy became taboo in the US.

This (Photoshopped!) pregnant lady is promoting Brazil’s Nova Schin non-alcoholic beer.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns, “drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause a baby to be born with birth defects and have disabilities,” and that “there is no known amount of alcohol that is safe to drink while pregnant.” True, alcohol-related birth defects and disabilities are real, tragic, heartbreaking, and are 100 percent preventable. But is a pregnant woman really taking a gamble with her baby’s health by consuming half a glass of beer with her dinner?

In November 1996, the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) published Guideline No. 9, consisting of conclusions and recommendations concerning alcohol consumption during pregnancy: “No adverse effects on pregnancy outcome have been proven with a consumption of less than 120 [grams] of alcohol (around 15 units) per week [1 unit = 1/2 pint].” The RCOG didn’t give pregnant women license to be lushes, however; they recommended limiting consumption to no more than one drink per day.

A study that evaluated over 130,000 pregnancy outcomes, published in 1998 in Neurotoxicology and Teratology, showed that moderate alcohol consumption (2-14 well-spaced drinks per week) during the first trimester of pregnancy is not associated with increased risk of fetal malformations.

On a more personal and less scientific note, when I was an au-pair in the Netherlands, the mother I worked for told me that her doctor actually recommended an occasional glass of red wine during pregnancy. (In Europe, they do in general have a different, more flexible attitude toward pregnant moms and alcohol.)

I am emphatically not implying that moms-to-be should exploit the upper limits of the studies mentioned above. A fetus is affected by what a mother drinks, and it is ignorant to claim otherwise. The point here is that fear-mongering abounds in the US. Under the supposition of minimizing risk to their babies, pregnant women are expected to attain some “perfect behavior” that includes forswearing soft cheese, canned tuna, fresh apple cider, salad bars, sushi, sprouts, herbal teas, lunch meats, diet soda pop, coleslaw, caffeine, tap water, stress, pesticides, house paint, cleaning fluids, hot tubs, electric blankets, most prescription drugs, microwaves, getting overheated, hair dye, X-rays, roller coasters, reptiles, nail polish, sleeping on one’s right side and changing cat litter boxes, to name a few. Sure, some of these warnings are imperative, but just reading this list makes me crave a tranquil moment, savored over a few sips of craft beer.

So how does an expecting mom navigate this sea of prohibitions? In the case of alcohol, studies clearly demonstrate that a mother’s heavy drinking is dangerous for a fetus. However, negative effects of an occasional, small tipple have not been shown.

I believe that, overwhelmingly, moms have their babies’ best interests at heart, and so although these are not decisions to take lightly, they are decisions mothers can be trusted to make. By no means do I think that pregnant women are entitled to a nice beer buzz every once in a while. But for women who delight in the camaraderie or the feeling of small celebration that is often linked to imbibing, an occasional, diminutive drink can help them feel like themselves again; like they’re not being cut off from their old life and friends by their unborn baby. Half a glass of beer with dinner once a week, a champagne toast at a wedding, or a small glass of wine sipped on date night are pleasures of life that I believe pregnant women should feel empowered to decline or embrace.

Did I drink when I was pregnant? The short answer is, not really. I knew that, for me, half a beer would only work to leave me craving more, rather than to satisfy. I did, however, attend two Michigan Brewers Guild festivals while pregnant. At each, I kissed a few well-chosen samples, wetting my lips enough to know I was really, seriously looking forward to a pint of Short’s Hangin’ Frank [update: now renamed ControversiALE] or an evening with Jolly Pumpkin’s Madrugada Obscura.

A French poster from yesteryear reads (by my own loose translation), “Beer is nutritious. This one is drinking, This one does not drink.”

Which brings me to the next phase: breastfeeding. The entire time I was pregnant, I had a misty, rose-colored fantasy of enjoying frosty craft brews with my friends while my new baby slept sweetly in another room. Cut to reality: my baby screams unending with colic, and it dawns on me that I can’t just freely swig high-gravity beers while breastfeeding. In fact, most of my online searches cautioned me not to drink at all.

However, drinking while breastfeeding is not off-limits. Quoting an article from the June 1996 Journal of Human Lactation, “a mother who chooses to drink should feed her infant before drinking. Usually breastfeeding occurs about every two to three hours. In that time frame, the alcohol from one drink (12 oz. of 4.5% beer, 4 oz. of 12% wine, or 1.5 oz. of 86% proof liquor) is out of her system before another feeding occurs. The mother’s milk is then alcohol free.” So, there are options if a mom just craves a beer; if a long night of brews with some friends, or perhaps a beer festival, is in order, it’s best to pump beforehand so baby has plenty of untainted milk to drink, get a sitter, “pump and dump” for comfort’s sake if necessary, and enjoy!

An old ad for Blatz reads, “A case of Blatz Beer in your home means much to the young mother, and obviously baby participates in its benefits. The malt in the beer supplies nourishing qualities that are essential at this time and the hops acts as an appetizing, stimulating tonic.”

Nursing moms clearly have plenty of latitude, while pregnant moms should exercise restraint. In the October 2007 issue of the British Medical Journal, an obstetric consultant asserted, “there is no evidence that alcohol in moderation causes harm to unborn babies.” Moms-to-be have enough on their plates (or taken off their plates, as the case may be) without worrying about whether one small glass of homebrewed chocolate stout is going to cause birth defects. And, according to any levelheaded research that actually addresses this matter, it won’t.

Most mothers want to make the best choices possible for their babies, and to make those decisions, they should be equipped with facts – not blanket statements and scare tactics. A mom shapes a child for a lifetime; let’s supply her with the real facts and trust her to start right from the very beginning. That pregnant woman at the brewpub, who has done her research and weighed the facts, likely won’t even finish half of her glass. So let’s send a smile her way as she revels in a few sips of local, handcrafted beer.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing
    all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say excellent blog!


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