A controversial study published this week that suggested light drinking may not harm fetuses has drawn criticism from other researchers, including Sterling Clarren at the University of British Columbia.
There were a number of serious issues with the research, says Dr. Clarren, including that the children were assessed at the age of five, too early to see some of the problems that can be caused by exposure to alcohol.
But while pointing out the deficiencies of the work, Dr. Clarren adds that it is time for scientists to come up with better advice for pregnant women than the current public health warning of "no exposure equals no risk."
"We also know in our hearts of hearts, that certainly small amounts of alcohol delivered occasionally is safe. We all know that it bothers women that they are doing something that on some level they know is safe and yet the public healthy warning is different than that," says Dr. Clarren, an expert in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and CEO of the Canada Northwest FASD Research network,
"The problem is the complexity of the issue. What is a drink? People don't drink standard drinks. People don't realize what they are drinking in absolute terms. How big is the person, 5 feet tall 100 pounds or 6 feet tall, 200 pounds? Do they have a lean body mass or a lot of body fat? Those all vary the distribution of alcohol."
There are so many, factors, he says, it becomes difficult to make a simple warning statement. One option is to set the bar very low, to say that a single drink once a month, is probably okay most of the time.
But first, he says, there needs to be social marketing research done to see how pregnant women would respond to a more nuanced message. Would they feel it was okay to indulge more regularly?
The study, published this week in the British Medical Journal, suggests that children born to mothers who drank once or twice a week during pregnancy were less likely to have behavioural problems than children whose moms didn't touch alcohol.