Young women who binge or frequently drink alcohol were more likely to drink during the early stages of pregnancy, according to new research.

The study, led by the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and Deakin University, found alcohol use was common among young adult women prior to becoming pregnant (72 per cent) and in the first six weeks of pregnancy (76 per cent).

The research, published in Addiction, used MCRI data from the Victorian Intergenerational Health Cohort Study (VIHCS) and involved almost 300 Australian women, highlighting a striking continuity in women's patterns of alcohol use across two decades and into the first weeks of pregnancy.

It found that most women who drank in early pregnancy had an earlier history of frequent (77 per cent) and/or binge drinking (85 per cent) across the adolescent or young adult years.

Deakin University Associate Professor Delyse Hutchinson said the study was one of the first worldwide to have collected prospective longitudinal data spanning the peak period of alcohol use through to the early weeks of pregnancy.

"We assessed risky drinking patterns, including binge and frequent drinking, and found they continued unchanged into the early weeks of pregnancy, particularly the first six weeks when many women are not aware they are pregnant," she said.

"The data showed the proportion of women drinking on most days (16 per cent) and binge drinking (17 per cent) were strikingly similar both before pregnancy and during the early weeks of pregnancy."

Associate Professor Hutchinson said once women became aware of their pregnancy, at around six weeks gestation, the rates of drinking dropped dramatically from 76 per cent to 12 per cent, showing women were making sound decisions when they realised they were pregnant.

The University of Sydney Professor Elizabeth Elliott said that understanding the extent of alcohol use in early pregnancy was important because prenatal alcohol exposure could cause permanent harm to a developing fetus, including to critical brain and organ development.

"Alcohol also has many negative health consequences for pregnant women and for pregnancy outcomes, including an elevated risk of miscarriage, and harms to the unborn child, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which is preventable," she said.

"The fact that more than three-quarters of women continued frequent or binge drinking when becoming pregnant demonstrates we must do better with public health messaging."  

MCRI Professor George Patton said that reducing risky drinking behaviour in the teenage years lessened the potential harm to young people themselves and the next generation.

National Health and Medical Research Council Australian Alcohol Guidelines recommend that women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol to prevent harm from alcohol to their unborn child and that no 'safe' level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been identified.

The Royal Children's Hospital, the University of Melbourne, the University of New South Wales, The Sydney Children's Hospital Network and Monash University also contributed to the findings.

Publication: Delyse Hutchinson, Elizabeth A. Spry, Hanafi Mohamad Husin, Melissa Middleton, Stephen Hearps, Margarita Moreno-Betancur, Elizabeth J. Elliott, Joanne Ryan, Craig A. Olsson and George C. Patton. 'Longitudinal prediction of periconception alcohol use: a 20-year prospective cohort study across adolescence, young adulthood and pregnancy,' Addiction. DOI: 10.1111/add.15632

*The content of this communication is the sole responsibility of MCRI and does not reflect the views of the NHMRC.

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The Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) is the largest child health research institute in Australia committed to making discoveries and developing treatments to improve child and adolescent health in Australia and around the world. They are pioneering new treatments, trialling better vaccines and improving ways of diagnosing and helping sick babies, children and adolescents. It is one of the only research institutes in Australia to offer genetic testing to find answers for families of children with previously undiagnosed conditions.


This work was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council [APP1008273, APP1063091, APP437015, APP1019887 to G.P., APP1110341 to E.E., APP1197488 to D.H., APP1175086 to C.O.]; Australian Rotary Health; Colonial Foundation; Perpetual Trustees; Financial Markets Foundation for Children (Australia); The Royal Children's Hospital Foundation; Murdoch Children's Research Institute; Australian Postgraduate Award to E.S.; and the Australian Research Council (DP180102447, DP1311459 to C.O. and DE190101326 to M.M-B.) Research at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute is supported by the Victorian Government's Operational Infrastructure Program. Both the Victorian Adolescent Health Cohort Study (VAHCS) and the Victorian Intergenerational Health Cohort Study (VIHCS) have been supported by a series of project grants from Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, the Colonial Foundation, Australian Rotary Health, Perpetual Trustees and Financial Markets for Children (Australia).