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Study O.K.’s Light Drinking During Pregnancy. Too Good to Be True?


4 Star

Study O.K.’s Light Drinking During Pregnancy. Too Good to Be True?

Our Review Summary

You can almost hear the assignment desk with this one: "Give me 15 inches on this study that says babies and alcohol mix." The study itself is a little more complicated, and this story does a nice job of exploring the study’s limitations and the broader scope of the science around alcohol consumption and fetal development. This story hit more of the marks than the WebMD story we reviewed on the same study.


Why This Matters

With most clinicians in the United States recommending that women abstain entirely from alcohol while pregnant, there is a heightened anxiety around the effects drinking might have on a child. As the story notes, "for those women who drink before finding out they’re pregnant or who have an occasional glass of wine afterward, this study can provide reassurance that very low levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy are unlikely to cause serious problems." Compared to the WebMD story we reviewed, this story took more care in presenting the evidence in what could have been a pun-filled and lightly glossed over story.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

This does not seem to apply.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Unlike the other story reviewed, this story notes that the children of mothers who drank lightly were "slightly less likely to have behavioral problems and performed somewhat better on cognitive tests." This is a startling finding, to say the least, but then the story, importantly, adds that "this does *not* mean that light drinking in pregnancy is good for your baby. When researchers controlled for factors like maternal education and income, which tend to be higher in light drinkers, it significantly reduced the positive effects associated with alcohol. For example, before adjusting for these kinds of differences between the groups, the researchers found that light drinking was connected with 33% lower rates of overall behavior problems in boys — after the adjustment, that effect fell to 23%." But the story should have included the actual rates, for instance that the rates for high total difficulties was 6.6 percent for sons of light drinkers vs. 9.6 percent for sons of mothers who did not drink during pregnancy. Including those numbers would point out that the overwhelming majority of children in both groups did not have major problems.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not put a number to the "increased levels of behavior problems and lowered cognitive performance among children." It should have.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


From the first sentence, this story is more specific and more detailed than the other story we reviewed on this topic. The other story might leave readers with the impression that, while pregnant, they could have two beers, two high balls of whiskey, or two full glasses of wine without incident. This story says "a glass of wine or two a week — and not more than one large glass on any occasion — may be safe during pregnancy". It also takes readers through the current published paper carefully and previous published research that is part of the ongoing study. Unlike the other study reviewed, this story explains how the study determined whether alcohol was having a negative effect and talks about the limitations of the study and the field of research in general. It says, "This data is notoriously hard to interpret, however, in part because it is based on women’s self-reports: the public health message against drinking during pregnancy has been so widely adopted that women who do drink may significantly underreport their consumption to researchers. If women who say they are drinking at “light” levels are actually drinking at moderately or heavily, that might make the data on light drinking look more dangerous than they are." It would have been helpful to describe how the study was done to judge its quality. In fact, it was a well-designed cohort study (following mothers and children over time, starting soon after birth), a more reliable way of assessing cause-and-effect than other types of studies.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The story does a good job making it clear that alcohol consumption is a tricky risk factor. It explains how it has been shown to have both positive and negative effects.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story clearly was built on a lot of research, but it did not bring in any outside voices.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story notes that some women who usually drink decide to abstain either when planning to become pregnant, while others stop drinking after they learn they are pregnant, and still others continue to drink during pregnancy.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The study does take a novel approach to studying the harms and benefits of alcohol, which the story makes clear.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not rely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 8 Satisfactory


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