Researchers suspect that reports of the health benefits of moderate drinking for people who are not pregnant - such as reports that an occasional glass of wine can reduce artery disease - may be playing a role in the rise of women drinking while pregnant.
Several pregnant women interviewed by CBS News seem confused.
"There's a range in what doctors recommend or say that's acceptable," one woman said. "Some say you can drink a glass of wine every once in a while, and some say you can't have any."
Another woman said, "If you're somebody who wants to take the word of your obstetrician and then compare that to what's out there in the news, then I think you could very easily be confused."
According to Dr. Ann Streissguth, Director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Drug Unit at the University of Washington Medical Center, current science makes the answer clear.
|Dr. Ann Streissguth (CBS)|
Dr. Streissguth says that although most people consider fetal alcohol syndrome to be the result of heavy drinking during pregnancy, it can also be caused by moderate drinking.
The syndrome can lead to mental retardation, learning disabilities, and motor-skill problems.
Dr. Michael Silverstein (CBS)
"We counsel our patients very strongly not to drink in pregnancy," Dr. Silverstein says.
Dr. Silverstein says that there are certain times during pregnancy when alcohol can be used as a uterine relaxer. He adds that, before the advent of newer drugs, hospitals used to administer ethynol intravenously to stop pre-term labor.
There are "junctures" in a pregnancy, such as after amnocentesis - a medical procedure during which a small amount of amniotic fluid is removed for laboratory analysis - when Dr. Silverstein suggests that women have a glass of wine at home.
Also, in early labor, if a woman isn't completely dilated, he tells his patient to go home and have a glass of wine. Since pre-labor can last 12-16 hours on average, the wine helps to relax the uterus, and often, Dr. Silverstein says, his patients return to the hospital dilated by a few extra centimeters.
Since both junctures occur late in the pregnancy, Dr. Silverstein says there is less risk associated with this kind of moderate drinking. Early in the pregnancy is the most dangerous time to drink, he says, because that's when the organs of the fetus are in early development and the risk is greatest for permanent damage.
Dr. Streissguth says that, in the first trimester, the effect of drinking on fetuses varies. How drinking affects the mother does not always match how it affects the developing child.
She notes that research indicates that if you stop at any time, "it's better than not stopping at all."
Dr. Silverstein attributes the increase in drinking by mothers to several possible causes. He notes that a "tacit approval" for drinking that may be linked to recent news that alcohol can reduce artery disease, as well as a lax attitudes by doctors.