When I was seven years old, my parents took me to Europe for an entire summer, and I quickly realized that the rules abroad were different from the ones at home. For example, my family’s rules about alcohol changed once we crossed the Atlantic: suddenly, I was allowed to drink wine (watered down, of course) at dinner, something I had never been permitted to do before. And I clearly remember seeing a Frenchwoman, baby bump bulging from her slim figure, drinking a glass of red wine and smoking a cigarette. Even at seven, I knew her habits would not have been okay at home in the United States. Indeed, the health guidelines doctors urge pregnant women to follow—and that some countries even require by law—change significantly from culture to culture.
From Bottles of Wine to Baby Bottles
The rules about what pregnant women can and can’t do—emphasis on can’t—are pretty prohibitive. For starters, a lady with a baby bump should say no to all forms of alcohol if she wants to avoid legal troubles and social stigmatization. It’s not illegal for a pregnant woman to drink, but according to DrugPolicy.org, a law enforcement officer can take her into custody if he feels that her alcohol use is harming the baby. And if that weren’t enough to stop a mom-to-be from drinking, the looks she gets when she even sets foot in a bar will make her order a seltzer instead.
Pregnant European women look askance at their American counterparts, too, over their pints of Guinness (a traditional remedy for increasing breast milk supply) or glasses of wine. But the American attitude of abstinence is reaching across the Atlantic, where European countries are becoming more and more aware of the risks of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), at least at the governmental level. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Mommy Files” reports that in 2007, the British government ruled against even occasional alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and in France, “American-style” warning labels have been slapped onto all alcohol bottles. Even Ireland, home of that lactation-inducing Guinness, has introduced a public-awareness campaign against drinking during pregnancy.
But Rachelle Atkins, an American writer who chronicles raising her children in France for Babble.com, reports, “There are government campaigns here to get pregnant women to stop drinking alcohol and smoking, but they seem to be about as successful as the campaign to get Parisians to curb their dogs.”
And while Frenchwomen resist government infringement on their right to pinot noir, research is emerging in the United States that moderate drinking during pregnancy might actually be a good thing. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse in Detroit, Michigan, now argues that light drinkers have easier births and healthier, smarter babies.
Something Fishy About Pregnancy Guidelines
The American Pregnancy Association—a national health organization focused on promoting prenatal wellness through research, education, and advocacy—recommends that pregnant women avoid all raw seafood, especially shellfish, because of the risks of contracting coliform bacteria, toxoplasmosis, and salmonella. The organization also urges women to avoid fish containing mercury, which it says sushi and sashimi contain a great deal of.
What do pregnant Japanese women eat, then? Amos Grunebaum, MD FACOG, an obstetrician and gynecologist specializing in high-risk pregnancies, writes on BabyMed.com that the sushi stigma has had no effect in Asia. Dr Grunebaum argues that “there is no scientific evidence that eating sushi in pregnancy increases pregnancy complications. As long as you take certain precautions and eat low-mercury fish, then it should be safe to eat.
“In Japan, pregnant women do not generally stop eating sushi when they become pregnant, and many Japanese pregnancy books suggest eating sushi as part of a healthy, low-fat diet during pregnancy,” he adds. “Japanese tradition has it that postpartum women get certain kinds of sushi in the hospital during their recovery.”
Dr. Grunebaum doesn’t mention that Japan is the home of mercury poisoning, aka Minamata disease, but he makes the point that there is a cultural divide over this recommendation, and that maybe American pregnant women shouldn’t worry so much about eating low-mercury fish like those the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recommends: anchovies, catfish, flounder, mackerel, salmon, whitefish, and tilapia.
Frenchwomen Say Cheese
Pregnant women shouldn’t be eating Brie, Camembert, or Roquefort, either, says the American Pregnancy Association. The organization reports that these imported soft cheeses are made from unpasteurized milk and may contain the bacteria listeria, which can cause miscarriage and fetal infection or blood poisoning.
To this Frenchwomen say, “Non!” for the same reason Japanese women keep eating their sushi: cheese is a staple of the French diet. Asking une femme to avoid Brie is like asking an American woman not to eat ice cream—it’s just not going to happen. And apparently, Frenchwomen haven’t had enough personal experience with listeria to make them stop. Atkins adds, “For plenty of French women, the notion of going without wine, cheese, cigarettes, or caffeine for nine months is as crazy as saying a French man must go through forty years of marriage without taking a mistress.”
The lesson pregnant women in the United States should take from these cultural comparisons is that there’s being careful, and then there’s being too careful. Healthy babies are born all over Europe and Asia every day, despite the fact that their mothers have eaten sushi and cheese and drunk the occasional glass of wine during their pregnancies. Worry just enough about mercury poisoning and FAS, and then remember to relax and enjoy yourself.