A new study has measured the levels of alcohol consumption among 7,000 women during pregnancy across Europe.
Women in Norway had the lowest consumption rates (4.1 percent), while the UK had the highest, with 28.5 percent. Russia followed the UK with 26.5 percent of pregnant women drinking alcohol during pregnancy, following Switzerland with 20.9 percent.
The survey was carried out online and all participants were anonymous, to minimise underreporting.
Women who drank during pregnancy were more likely to be older, more highly educated, in employment, and had typically smoked before pregnancy in comparison to the women who did not report this consumption.
One interesting finding was that countries with comparable drinking culture to the UK, such as France and Poland, still had lower numbers of women who drank while pregnant. This would suggest that a country’s overall drinking culture doesn’t predict drinking patterns in pregnant women.
"Differences in pregnant women's drinking behaviour between countries can have many explanations,” says Professor Hedvig Nordeng, from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, who is the principal investigator of the study in Norway.
“There could be differences in national guidelines or educational campaigns about drinking during pregnancy, differences in prenatal care and attitudes towards alcohol use in pregnancy, or a combination of all these factors.”
The study found that women in Italy and the UK drank most frequently during pregnancy (more than one to two units per week).
Those who drank the least (one to two units during the whole pregnancy) were in Norway and Sweden (over 80 percent of the women who said they drank during pregnancy) and France, Poland, Finland and Russia (70-80 percent).
So, although it would appear that a significant amount of Russian women continue to drink during pregnancy, compared to the other countries they do not actually drink that much.
It’s not clear why Italian women seem to drink a lot more than the women in the other countries. There may be a combination of factors at play.
Angela Lupattelli, from the University of Oslo, who coordinated the study in Norway and Italy, explains: "We can speculate that both social and cultural factors play a role.
"Women's attitudes on the one hand, and national alcohol-related guidelines and policies on the other, may influence women's drinking behaviour during pregnancy.”
The association between smoking before pregnancy and alcohol use during pregnancy has already been observed during previous studies.
With regards to older and more highly educated women drinking during pregnancy, the researchers have proposed that older, more educated women might be more critical towards guidelines that recommend complete abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy.
They may have been less exposed than younger women to the health campaigns that warn against alcohol use during pregnancy, especially if they drank small amounts during previous pregnancies and had healthy children.
However, the researchers urge caution when it comes to alcohol during pregnancy.
"There is no defined safe minimum amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy.
"We therefore recommend that all pregnant women should adhere to the guidelines for total alcohol abstinence during pregnancy," says Nordeng.