Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Drinking Moms Put Babies at Risk

For the first three months, Vera Taran said she didn't realize she was pregnant. During that time she attended a lot of parties, includin her grandmother's funeral and her own 30th birthday and name day.

After she found out she was pregnant and decided to keep the baby, she was upset because she had drunk hard alcohol throughout her first trimester. Then she came across a Romanian book on maternity that said coffee and tea should be completely banned from a pregnant woman's diet, but red wine doesn't hurt.

Taran's mother even had wine before heading to the hospital to give birth to her, according to family legend. "And look at me now -- I'm perfectly healthy and used to have the best grades at school," Taran said.

Encouraged, she kept on having occasional drinks of wine and champagne and claims to have never been intoxicated during her pregnancy. She said her drinking patterns were based on common sense and pointed out that many food items contain alcohol, for example kefir, a fermented-yogurt drink that Russian babies are fed starting from birth.

Taran's point of view is no exception. Interviews with several young mothers showed that Russian women's attitudes about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy are relatively easygoing.

This is not the case only in Russia. In the United States, data drawn from a random telephone survey showed four times as many pregnant women admitted to "frequent" drinking in 1995 compared to women answering a similar poll in 1991. Of 1,313 pregnant women, 3.5 percent said they drank an average of seven or more drinks a week or had consumed five or more drinks at least once during the previous month, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy may cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS, a serious, irreversible defect that includes craniofacial abnormalities, mental retardation and growth deficiencies. But drinking during pregnancy also can cause less obvious consequences, sometimes referred to as alcohol-related birth defects, which include learning disabilities and behavior problems, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Vladimir Altshuller, a researcher on women's alcohol abuse at the Drug and Alcohol Research Center in Moscow, said there are no reliable statistics on how many pregnant women consume alcohol in Russia.

However, researchers know FAS is a problem in Russia, too. According to two separate surveys, 3 to 50 per 1,000 newborns suffer from FAS, and every second or third baby born from an alcoholic mother has FAS, Altshuller said.

These newborns often suffer from multiple diseases. Up to 90 percent of FAS babies, who are typically born premature, suffer from retarded post-natal development, up to 95 percent have mental disorders and 49 percent of them have congenital heart disease, he said.

Complete abstinence remains the official recommendation both in Russia and in the United States. Maya Aksyonova, director of Moscow gynecological and pregnancy consultation center No. 2 at Ulitsa Palikha, says there can be absolutely no question of drinking during pregnancy.

"All our clients are very concerned about what they eat and drink," she said. "Many refuse to take safe, necessary pills and vitamins. If they had an accidental pregnancy, they fear that their baby may be affected by having been conceived by inebriated parents.

"It's such a hard job to be pregnant and bring the baby up these days that most women do it conscientiously," Aksyonova says, adding that only careless future mothers would put their babies at risk by drinking.

In Russia, it's difficult to find statistical information that distinguishes FAS from birth defects not caused by alcohol. For example, research conducted in the northern city of Arkhangelsk showed that the number of birth defects in newborns doubled over the last 10 years, said Valentina Moskalenko, a specialist on the genetic aspects of alcohol abuse at the Drug and Alcohol Research Center. Although she doesn't know why they have doubled, Moskalenko said alcohol use among parents-to-be is contributing to the rise.

"Five percent of newborns have all sorts of birth defects, for which alcohol is not the only cause, but is the easiest to avoid," Moskalenko said.

Despite these horrifying statistics, abstinence has been a difficult message to communicate, both Russian and Western officials say, because there is no evidence that a small amount of alcohol use during pregnancy -- amounting to one or two drinks a week -- is harmful. A safe limit of alcohol consumption has never been established, especially because the risks may vary according to an individual's genetic makeup and health habits.

Maybe that's why some obstetricians and those researching the effects of alcohol on fetuses prefer not to force anti-drinking propaganda onto pregnant women, fearing that they will "intrude in their personal lives," as Moskalenko puts it.

Altshuller said he thinks an absolute ban on drinking when pregnant in the Soviet times was anti-alcohol propaganda and a way to intimidate people.

Despite this reluctance about advising women not to drink, Moskalenko does not underestimate the effects that a even small amount of alcohol during pregnancy can have on a child. "The effect of small alcohol intake [during pregnancy] might not be visible for the neighbors or even for the mother, but it causes things like a child's attention deficit and inability to solve mathematical problems," she said.

Moreover, the belief that small amounts of alcohol are good for both the mother and baby is common among many Russian women. For instance, many women think red wine that hasn't been aged helps correct a deficiency of red blood cells. Small amounts of beer also are considered necessary to increase lactation during breast-feeding.

Yulia Postnova, the founder of Moscow's alternative Jewel parental school, which advocates non-traditional obstetrics, advocates a middle course in alcohol use while pregnant. If the future mother has an uncontrollable craving, it's better for her to have a drop of wine than to strain herself, she said.

Taran's alcohol use during her pregnancy mirrors Postnova's advice. At least in this case, it worked. Taran is the mother of a healthy 4-year-old girl.