Pregnant women continue to receive conflicting advice about drinking alcohol, however there is no proven level of safe drinking during pregnancy, the HSE has said.
It has launched a new information campaign, which aims to provide clarity about this issue. Currently, many pregnant women and those thinking about becoming pregnant are confused about how much, if any, alcohol they can consume.
"Pregnant women receive conflicting advice about drinking during pregnancy, and are often assured by family and friends that an occasional drink won't do any harm. But the fact is that there is no proven level of safe drinking during pregnancy.
"We do know that heavy or frequent drinking is more dangerous, and the more you drink, the greater the risk to your baby. But the only way to have zero risk, is to drink zero alcohol," commented Dr Mary O'Mahony, a specialist in public health medicine with the HSE.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) because alcohol passes from the mother's blood into the baby's blood via the placenta.
FASD can cause problems with a baby's body, brain and development, which can carry on into childhood and adulthood. These problems include poor attention and hyperactivity, learning difficulties, behaviour problems, mental health problems and being smaller than expected.
Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is more serious and can occur if the mother drinks heavily during pregnancy. In addition to the problems associated with FASD, FAS can also cause damage to the brain and spinal cord, heart problems and abnormally shaped facial features.
There is no cure for FASD and FAS, although diagnosing and treating the symptoms early can help a child to manage better.
According to a 2017 study published in the journal, JAMA Pediatrics, Ireland was estimated to have the third highest rate of FASD, including FAS, in a global study of 187 countries.
The new HSE campaign, which includes an information leaflet and social media messaging, explains that one of the best things you can do during pregnancy to keep yourself and your baby healthy is to avoid drinking alcohol.
"This new campaign outlines the facts about FASD, and has lots of practical information for women who are pregnant or planning a family, about how to plan an alcohol-free pregnancy.
"We know from talking to women that they can sometimes feel under pressure to drink because other people expect them to or because they don't want people to guess that they are pregnant," commented Marion Rackard of the HSE Alcohol Programme.
She noted that the campaign also provides advice to partners, family members and friends on how they can provide support to the pregnant person, making it easier to have an alcohol-free pregnancy.
The new campaign was launched to coincide with FASD Awareness Day (September 9). The campaign's information leaflet can be viewed here.
If you are pregnant and finding it difficult to stop drinking, contact your GP or the confidential HSE Drug and Alcohol Helpline for local help and support on 1800 459 459. This is available Monday to Friday, from 9.30am to 5.30pm. Alternatively, email firstname.lastname@example.org.