If the Wine’s High End, Is it Okay to Drink During Pregnancy?

“Do you drink alcohol?” the nurse practitioner, who’s checking off boxes on a list of questions that goes on for four pages, looks sternly up at me. I am pregnant. Pregnant women in America are not supposed to drink.

“Never,” I tell her.

I’m lying.

The gimlet my husband and I shared in a fancy Italian restaurant to try Philip Marlowe’s favorite drink was before I knew I was pregnant. But I did not mention the sip or two of red wine I have at dinner almost every night.

Every pregnant woman in America knows she’s not supposed to drink. Drinking can cause an array of problems for the fetus, from fetal alcohol syndrome to learning disabilities to birth defects that can occur in the heart, kidneys, lungs, eyes, ears, and bones. Michael Dorris’s heartbreaking memoir, The Broken Cord, about adopting a child born with fetal alcohol syndrome shows just how devastating alcohol during pregnancy can be.

But it turns out that some of our assumptions (and fears) about pregnancy and alcohol are culturally based.

When I was eight months pregnant my husband and I traveled to Paris. “They won’t let you on the plane,” my mother-in-law fretted. I waddled down the aisle in a red sundress. Three different stewardesses insisted I put a pillow between the seat belt and my abdomen, scolding me in clipped French when I refused. Other than that, though, the flight overseas to attend a friend’s graduation passed without incident.

François was graduating from one of France’s finest business schools. Tall, lean, and fair, François and I had met when an acute attack of appendicitis sent him to Cambridge City Hospital. Alone in a hospital room in a city whose language he could barely understand, François bore his illness stoically. I visited him every day. My concern for this stranger, the son of the brother of a colleague of my mother’s, transformed into a deep friendship that has continued for more than ten years, despite language, culture, and religious differences.

After the ceremony at Versailles, there was a celebration in Sézanne, a small walled town in Champagne, at François’s family’s ancestral home, which was built in 1610. François’s father ushered us in arms wide in welcome. Before the other guests arrived, Mr. G showed us one of the house’s many secrets—an underground wine cellar. He explained that during World War II the cellars, which formed a labyrinthine underground network of tunnels, were used to hide Jews from the Nazis.

In a dank dark corner of the cellar were two shelves each containing a handful of fine wines: one shelf for François and one for his younger brother. On one shelf, Mr. G found what he was looking for: a bottle of expensive champagne that he had bought 25 years before with the intention of opening when his infant son did something especially worth celebrating.

We toasted Francois’s graduation with that twenty-five-year-old bottle of fine wine. François’s family urged that I drink—insisting that a really good wine (“Un bon vin”) would be good for the baby. Cheap table wine might cause fetal brain damage but not un bon vin. Have another glass! What, you haven’t finished that one yet? I took modest sips. Two weeks later I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Not long after, James and I bought an expensive wine bottled in our daughter’s birth year.

When Hesperus graduates from college we plan to open the bottle. We’ll offer the first glass to François.

Do you think it’s okay to have a sip of wine at dinner or a glass of “un bon vin” while you’re pregnant? Do you collect fine wine to share with your children when they become adults?

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14 thoughts on “If the Wine’s High End, Is it Okay to Drink During Pregnancy?”

  1. having grown up in europe, i thought nothing of having a glass or two of red wine once a week in the later months of my pregnancy. all was fine. i firmly believe that downing tons of wine during pregnancy is absolutely dangerous. But I find that americans are very either/or. the research led to a culture of complete abstinence that i’m not sure is necessary. i enjoyed an occasional glass of wine when i was pregnant, not only for the taste, but because i liked feeling a part of the celebration or the night out. as always, moderation and good sense is the key.

  2. There are so many real dangers for babies in and out of utero — such as not being secured in a car seat or seatbelt — that the occasional glass of wine while pregnant shouldn’t merit a thought. I drank the occasional glass of wine when I was pregnant with both my beautiful, healthy children. Undue worrying about drinking probably does more harm than the moderate drinking itself.

  3. Another reader here who lived in France while pregnant. I had a similar experience with my husband’s godfather’s cave and the wine of my birth, served to me. That said, afterwards I read The Broken Cord and understood why pregnant women not supposed to drink wine.

  4. I’d always heard that drinking during pregnancy could harm the unborn baby. I wonder if there’s any current research on this. Since I don’t drink it didn’t come up with my pregnancies.

    So about that airline travel–it didn’t make you swell up like a balloon? I traveled in the car late in one of my pregnancies and I tell you my feet still haven’t gone back to their regular size and that was 7 years ago! Hello, water retention.

  5. Having worked with so many young children who were exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, I must say, the reality is, no alcohol is the answer. There is no known safe amount. Of all the substances researched, alcohol has the most evidence of harmful short and longterm effects for the developing child. The other truth is that the impact is not always easily identifiable. It is a very complex issue for those affected. If you want to be on the safe side…avoid it all together.

  6. I’m in the better-safe-than-sorry camp. Then again, if I have 5 drinks in a year … that’s a lot. So, going 9 months w/o wouldn’t be a big deal.

    Funny side story … When my sis refused wine at a cousin’s wedding, I KNEW what it meant. So, when she announced a few weeks later that she was indeed pregnant, I was NOT surprised.

  7. I don’t drink at all so this wasn’t a problem for me during pregnancy. However, my father is a devoted wine lover and bought an expensive case of wine in my birth year. I think the plan was to have it at my wedding. At some point he gave in and just enjoyed it himself I guess.

  8. I didn’t but that was my choice for a host of reasons. I agree with others who wonder whether worrying about drinking or not drinking during pregnancy is harmful to one’s health…pregnancy seems so fraught these days with dos or donts…it’s probably always been so (just different dos and donts at diffferent times.)

  9. I was too afraid to drink – either alcohol or coffee – during my pregnancies. I had heard that they were “forbidden.” I wonder if there are any conclusive studies to show this, though? Now that the pregnancies are (way) behind me, I thoroughly enjoy drinking – and sharing – wine with my sons (to make up for lost time :)

  10. I think very occasionally having a glass of wine probably wouldn’t be harmful. Though most of the alcohol and pregnancy studies have looked at chronic heavy drinking, binge drinking or frequent moderate alcohol consumption, there have been some studies finding that as little a one drink a week could be problematic.


  11. What a cool story! I’m in the ‘everything in moderation’ camp. Seems like a little wine here and there would be fine, but that’s just my unscientific theory.

  12. I’ve been seeing a slew of stories lately on how moderate drinking is NOT dangerous during pregnancy. The problem is, none of the studies out there seem to be conclusive. Which is probably why our culture has come firmly down on the side of OH-MY-GOD-IF-YOU-HAVE-ONE-SIP-YOU’RE-GOING-TO-HELL. Honestly, when I’m pregnant, I don’t think I’ll fear so much for my baby’s health as much as I’ll fear for any lasting damage I might incur from the withering glares of others.

  13. Ha! Steph, I hear you- when I was pregnant, I could be holding a clearly marked bottle of water, but if I was in a bar for a celebration, people stared (and that’s with no smoking allowed in public places in IL). Late in my pregnancy but before 37 weeks, when I was having contractions, my midwife suggested having a beer to slow the contractions, and it usually worked. According to Spiritual Midwifery, Ina May Gaskin suggested a shot of vodka to her laboring moms to slow preterm contractions. I’m not suggesting it to everyone- but wanted to mention that it may have a medicinal use sometimes.

  14. My husband makes beer. I make beer. Good, homemade, organic beer. I sip some (less than half of one) every night. Fermented foods, like beer, increase milk production. I have done so with my son, and my current pregnancy, and my son has never been ill a day in his life. Since they don’t do studies purposefully on pregnant women for the most part, listen to your own instinct. If you need a sip of red wine to relax your brackson hicks, do it. If you feel your shouldn’t, don’t. :)

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