Women targeted over alcohol pregnancy risks

Unborn babies can't process alcohol like their mothers. SFH/Daniel Stucki

A campaign has been launched to highlight the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy amid concerns over excessive alcohol consumption among women.

This content was published on July 8, 2005 - 11:44

Experts say that 7.4 per cent of pregnant women drink far too much alcohol in Switzerland and that each year 5,000 mothers-to-be are exposing their unborn babies to health risks.

The campaign is being run by the Swiss Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Addiction, with support from the main doctors' and pharmacists’ associations.

It aims to raise awareness among women by providing brochures and information about the effects of drinking while pregnant – which can include a child developing learning, behavioural and physical disabilities.

The institute says that it doesn’t want to panic women but that it is important that future mothers and their families are better informed about the issue.

Not aware

A recent study by Bern University found that only one third of expectant mothers were fully aware of the dangers of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Experts say that one the main reasons for this may be that some doctors still shy away from asking their female patients embarrassing questions.

"Sometimes doctors do not recognise heavy drinkers because they associate alcoholism with a certain type of personality, or even certain physical characteristics, as in the case of heroin addicts," said Patrick Hohfeld, a specialist in foetal medicine.

The institute says that medical professionals can therefore play an important role in the prevention and detection of alcohol dependency among pregnant women.

This is backed up by the Bern University survey, which revealed that up to two thirds of mothers-to-be had not been asked about their drinking habits during pregnancy.

Worrying trend

Another worrying trend, says experts, is that recent statistics show that alcohol and cigarette consumption are on the increase among Swiss women, especially among adolescent girls.

It is estimated that 4.4 per cent - or 140,000 – of Swiss women regularly drink to excess. Of these, 66,000 are estimated to be of childbearing age.

Every year a reported 1,000 children suffer the consequences of foetal alcohol exposure.

Hohfeld says that women are more affected by excessive drinking, meaning that the same amount of alcohol is more damaging to the female organism than to the male.

Women also become dependent on alcohol more quickly and find it more difficult to break the habit, added the professor.


Furthermore, whereas in the past an alcoholic was defined as someone who regularly consumes alcohol, doctors now say that even occasional excesses – getting drunk once a fortnight for example – is a sign of dependency.

Most women who decide to start a family make changes to their lifestyle well beforehand. But others - often because they get little support from their partners and families - continue to believe that a drink or two will not do any harm during pregnancy and when they are breastfeeding.

This is the group of people specifically targeted by the campaign, which was launched at the end of June. It urges women to give up drinking during pregnancy or at least limit consumption one glass a day and not every day.

And as has been pointed out by the institute’s director, Michel Graf, brochures only work if they are backed up by people who can convey the message discreetly and who understand the psychological problems experienced by women.

swissinfo, Raffaella Rossello

Key facts

In Switzerland 140,000 women are considered to be excessive drinkers of alcohol.
Every year around 1,000 children suffer the consequences of their mothers’ drinking during pregnancy.

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In brief

Excessive alcohol consumption can cause physical and neurological damage to unborn babies.

But drinking during pregnancy does not always damage the health of the baby.

Among pregnant women who have an alcohol problem or smoke heavily, there is estimated to be a 30 to 40 per cent risk of the child developing Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

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