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In January 2016, the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) of the UK published new joint guidance on low-risk alcohol consumption. This included revised guidance for the general population as well as specific recommendations relating to alcohol consumption for women who were pregnant or planning a pregnancy. Following an evidence review, a revised low-risk threshold was issued for men, down from no more than 21 units per week to no more than 14. The advised threshold for women was maintained at no more than 14 units per week. For women who were pregnant or planning a pregnancy, a precautionary approach was adopted, meaning a recommendation that these women should abstain from alcohol completely.

The aim of this research was to understand how the CMOs' new guidance on pregnancy was received by the target audience. Study methods were a rapid evidence review on alcohol and pregnancy, followed by a document analysis of CMO guidance and background documents. Four focus groups were then convened with a total of 18 stakeholders (Policy, Midwifery, Parents, Parent advocates), involving a presentation of key findings of the evidence review followed by group discussion.

Key findings

  • The views of parents, antenatal teachers, midwives and policy makers differed on the value of the revised Chief Medical Officer guidance for expectant mothers. Some found a simple, clear ‘don’t drink’ message helpful and easy to communicate. Others felt that the guidance didn’t sufficiently reflect the evidence and could create anxiety.
  • There was concern that advice on pregnancy planning did not reflect the reality of women’s lives, and implied that all women of child-bearing age should avoid alcohol.
  • Some participants were concerned about ‘social shaming’ of women if they decided to have a drink at any point in their pregnancy.
  • Participants felt public health messages should also encourage partners, family and society at large to be more supportive of women’s decisions.

Research team

Dr Rachel Brown, DECIPHer, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

Heather Trickey, DECIPHer, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University

Read our Research and Policy Director Dr James Nicholls' blog on the research.

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