MONDAY, March 10, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Women who drink before they conceive or during the first three months of pregnancy might be at increased risk of having a premature or small baby, new research finds.
The study included more than 1,200 pregnant women in the United Kingdom who provided information about their drinking habits shortly before and during pregnancy.
The U.K. Department of Health, like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends that pregnant women and those trying to conceive should not drink any alcohol. If they do, they should limit alcohol to no more than one or two units a week, according to the U.K. guidelines.
Alcoholic content varies. In general, though, one large glass of wine can contain more than three units of alcohol -- more than the upper weekly limit.
The University of Leeds researchers found that 53 percent of the women drank more than the recommended maximum of two weekly units of alcohol per week during the first three months of pregnancy. Nearly 40 percent drank more than 10 units a week just prior to conceiving.
Those who drank more than two units a week were more likely to be white, older, have higher levels of education and live in richer neighborhoods, the researchers said.
About 13 percent of the babies born to the women in the study were underweight, 4.4 percent were smaller than normal and 4.3 percent were born prematurely. Women who drank more than two units of alcohol a week during the first three months of pregnancy were twice as likely to have a premature or small baby as those who did not drink, the study found.
But even women who drank less than two units a week during the first three months of pregnancy were more likely to have a premature baby than those who did not drink, the researchers said.
Women who drank just before they conceived were also more likely to have babies that were smaller than normal, according to the study, which was published online recently in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
The findings show that drinking during the first three months of pregnancy has the greatest impact on babies, the researchers said. The study also highlighted the need to emphasize to women that they shouldn't drink just before or during pregnancy.
Although the study showed an association between alcohol consumption and premature birth, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
The March of Dimes has more about alcohol and pregnancy.