Pregnancy alcohol and coffee bans ‘debunked’?
Economist reviews the data behind pregnancy rules with surprising results.
One of the most commonly-known details about pregnancy is that an expectant mom should avoid alcohol. When economist Emily Oster became pregnant, however, she questioned conventional wisdom and decided to review exactly why certain pregnancy ‘rules’ exist and whether or not she should adhere to them, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In an essay entitled "Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know, (Penguin Press)" the economist she describes her own pregnancy experience: How she had decided to tackle such rules as how much coffee to have per day, the ban on alcohol, weight gain and other life-changing concepts familiar to many pregnant women. However, when she explored these in depth, she found that the scientific literature was often flawed in logic (or at least fuzzy), lacking in data and frequently contradictory. After all, if a study suggests that no alcohol is the only way to go, there must be proof to the claim.

Surprising numbers

She says:

“When I asked my doctor about drinking wine, she said that one or two glasses a week was "probably fine." But "probably fine" isn't a number. In search of real answers, I combed through hundreds of studies—the ones that the recommendations were based on—to get to the good data. This is where another part of my training as an economist came in: I knew enough to read the numbers correctly. What I found was surprising.”

She elaborates that the studies focussed on the results; if you drink less coffee, you’ll be less likely to miscarry, for example, based on the information that women who drink more coffee are more likely to miscarry, and this, she suggests, is where the flaw comes in: No other information is known about these miscarrying women. We don’t know their ages, lifestyles and other factors which could be equally relevant to miscarriage.

More exploration involved reading up on the data which supports a ban on certain foods during pregnancy, in order to avoid exposure to listeria bacteria. This led her to avoiding one or two of the foods most likely to affect her, but also prompted her to comment: “My best guess was that avoiding sliced ham would lower my risk of listeria from 1 in 8,333 to 1 in 8,255. I just didn't think it was worth it. It would have made more sense to avoid cantaloupe.”

“Drink like a European adult, not like a fraternity brother”

It would hardly be a fair experiment had she not explored the science behind a ban on alcohol. While Oster readily acknowledges the dangers of binge drinking and the correlation between excessive alcohol consumption and foetal alcohol syndrome and other neurological impairments in children born to moms who drink excessively, she wondered about the impact of light drinking on pregnant women.

On exploring many studies on pregnancy, alcohol and the effects on children (many of which took place over decades and followed the development of children, including children of non-drinkers), she found that most of the studies which found drinking to have a negative effect had flawed data, and that often children of light drinkers were found to be (surprisingly) less prone to behavioural disorders, and that they even had higher IQs.

She cites one study to back up this statement. In the study, women who drank during pregnancy were found to have kids more prone to behaviour problems, and yet she notes that of the women in the study, 18% of the women who didn't drink at all and 45% of the women who had one drink a day reported using cocaine during pregnancy. It’s not a huge leap to suggest that cocaine usage could be behind the behaviour problems…

Oster insists that despite having had between 3-4 cups of coffee a day during pregnancy, her daughter turned out fine, a personal interjection which seems to counteract her own academic argument, as personal experience does not imply scientific evidence.

It’s worth reading more of her compelling essay, in which she concludes that her pregnancy was a happier one for having chosen what her “rules” should or should not be, as this could help you to be more analytical when it comes to many of your parenting choices: If you simply accept the results of studies, whether academically sound ones or not, you may limit your own happiness and confidence.

*Editor's note: SA has a massive problem with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. The context of any drinking mentioned in this article is light drinking- limited to a glass of wine per day. Drinking excessively may harm your baby. Of course, should you be uncertain of the effects of certain substances or lifestyle choices on your pregnancy, it is always best to speak to a doctor, as the doctor will be aware of your specific medical needs.

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on Parent24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of Parent24.

Are you an "avoider" or an "everything-in-moderation" kind of pregnant mom?

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