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Is it safe to consume small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy?

British researchers say they have completed a study that suggests that light drinking is not harmful to the developing fetus.

The findings are based on the assessment of more than 10,000 seven-year-olds whose mothers had either abstained or drank lightly while pregnant. There was little difference between the two groups in terms of behavioural and mental development, according to results published in the BJOG, an international journal of obstetrics and gynecology.

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Light drinking was defined as consuming up to two units of alcohol a week. A unit is half a pint of lager or a single measure of spirits.

"We know heavy drinking during pregnancy has a very deleterious effect, but it is very unlikely that drinking small amounts will have an impact," study co-author, Yvonne Kelly of University College London, told BBC News.

The researchers acknowledge that the children will need to be followed long term to see if any problems become apparent later in life.

A Denmark study published last year also suggested mothers who drank low or moderate amounts of alcohol while pregnant did not alter the development of their children, who were tested at age 5 for intelligence as well as for attention span, decision making and planning capabilities.

But many public health authorities remain steadfastly opposed to alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Health Canada, on its websites, states: "There is no safe amount or safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy or when planning to be pregnant."

Dr. Gideon Koren, of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, is one of the world's leading authorities on pregnancy risks and he agrees with the federal agency's position. "Women should be advised to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy. There are insufficient data to suggest a safe threshold for fetal alcohol exposure," he says on the hospital's website.

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So whose advice should a woman follow? Considering that the effects of alcohol during pregnancy could last a lifetime, it's best to err on the side of caution.

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