Alcohol Use and Pregnancy:
An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Submitted by:Colleen Anne Dell and Gary Roberts
Research Support:Debbie Ayotte and Karen Garabedian
Submitted to:FASD Team, Public Health Agency of Canada
The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliations or
the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Mission:To promote and protect the health of Canadians through leadership, partnership, innovation and action in public health.
Vision: Healthy Canadians and communities in a healthier world.
Public Health Agency of Canada
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Dell, Colleen Anne, 1970-
Research update : Alcohol use and pregnancy : an important Canadian
public health and social issue / Colleen Anne Dell and Gary Roberts.
Également disponible en français sous le titre :
Le point sur la recherche Consommation d'alcool et grossesse : Une importante question sociale et de santé publique
Includes bibliographical references.
Cat. no.: HP10-5/2006E
1. Pregnant women--Alcohol use. 2. Pregnant women--Alcohol use-- Prevention. 3. Fetal alcohol syndrome--
Prevention. 4. Pregnant women--Alcohol use--Canada. I. Roberts, Gary II. Public Health Agency of Canada III. Title. IV.
Title: Alcohol use and pregnancy : an important Canadian public health and social issue.
RG629.F45 D44 2006 614.5'992326861 C2006-980032-4
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Table of Contents
1. Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3
2. Methodology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .7
3. Women’s Alcohol Use Patterns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11
4. Women’s Alcohol Use Patterns During Pregnancy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .17
4.1 Drinking While Pregnant and Levels of Consumption . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18
4.2 Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25
5. Characteristics and Circumstances of Women Who Use Alcohol
During Pregnancy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .27
5.1 Issues Faced by Women Who Use Alcohol . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28
5.2 Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32
6. Universal Prevention of Prenatal Alcohol Use Problems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .35
6.1 Population Health Promotion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .36
6.2 Alcohol Control Measures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .37
6.3 Public Awareness Activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .37
6.4 Measures Directed to Adolescents and Young Adults . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41
6.5 Multi-Component Strategies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41
6.6 Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .42
7. Selective Prevention of Prenatal Alcohol Use Problems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .45
7.1 Targeted Selective Prevention Messaging . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47
7.2 Identifying Pregnant Women with Substance Use Problems . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47
7.3 Brief Interventions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .49
7.4 Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .52
8. Indicated Prevention of Prenatal Alcohol Use Problems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .53
8.1 Identifying Women Who Benefit from Indicated Prevention Measures . . . . . .55
8.2 Barriers to Identifying Pregnant Women with Significant Substance Use Issues . .56
8.3 Outreach . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57
8.4 Targeted Indicated Prevention Messaging . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .58
8.5 Prenatal Medical and Social Attention . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .58
8.6 Providing Comprehensive and Practical Care . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .62
8.7 Canadian Models . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .66
8.8 Prevention Through Diagnosis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .67
8.9 Culturally Appropriate Treatment for Aboriginal Women . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .68
8.10 Cost-effectiveness of Treatment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .68
8.11 Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .69
9. Training and Professional Development . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .71
9.1 Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .7 4
10. Policy and Legal Responses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .75
10.1 Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .81
Table 1: Summary of Co-existing Conditions Experienced by Pregnant
Women Who Use Alcohol . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29
Figure 1: Frequency of Drinking, Females 12 and Older, 2000-01 . . . . . . . . . . . .13
Figure 2: Young Women’s Use of Alcohol (Drinking Any Alcoholic
Beverage Once a Week or More), 2001-02 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14
Figure 3: Use of Alcohol by Pregnant and Non-Pregnant Women,
Alberta, 2000-01 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23
Figure 4: Income-based Differences Among Women Who Reported
Drinking During Their Last Pregnancy, 2000-01 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30
Research Update 2005 1
The authors wish to extend sincere appreciation to Mary Berube, Virginia Carver, Margaret
Leslie, Nancy Poole, Caroline Tait and Pam Woodsworth, who provided external review of
this research update.
4Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy is an important public health and social issue in
Canada. This is due to the increasing societal awareness of the significant personal and
social costs associated with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). To help inform current
discussions on what works best to respond to pregnant women’s use of alcohol and related
harms, this research update summarizes the Canadian and international (primarily US)
literature. Three topics are reviewed: patterns of women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy
(sections 3 and 4); the characteristics of women who use alcohol during pregnancy and the
circumstances surrounding their use (section 5); and the public health, social and legal
responses to pregnant women’s use of alcohol (sections 6 to 10). Within each topic, the
strengths and limitations of the literature are reviewed, and from this, recommendations are
made for further research. If applicable, programming and policy implications are
discussed. The audience intended for this report is the various stakeholders of the Public
Health Agency of Canada.
A large number of complex and interrelated factors help to explain the use of alcohol by
women. This is particularly the case with drinking during pregnancy. Pregnant women’s use
of alcohol cannot be separated from other issues in their lives,1such as violence and socio-
economic status, and their alcohol use is often not easily isolated from other potentially
harmful behaviours, including tobacco and other drug use. In general, problematic
substance use for women is linked to a range of biological, genetic, psychological, social,
cultural, relational, environmental, economic and spiritual factors.2However, there are good
reasons to concentrate on alcohol alone. These range from the various negative health
consequences of alcohol use for pregnant women, including physical, mental, emotional
and spiritual well-being, to the fact that alcohol use during pregnancy is one of the leading
causes of birth defects and developmental delays in Canadian children.3
Women who drink during pregnancy are at risk of having a child with an FASD, including
its most visible presentation, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).i, 4,5 Estimating the number of
children born in Canada with FASD and FAS is difficult.ii Among the key problems is that
diagnostic capacity is inadequate and not evenly available across the country, studies are
i. "Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an
individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects may include physical, mental, behavioural and
learning disabilities with lifelong implications. The term FASD is not intended for use as a clinical diagnosis" (Chudley,
A.E., J. Conry, J.L. Cook, C. Loock, T. Rosales, N. LeBlanc (2005). "Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: Canadian guidelines
Canadian Medical Association Journal
. 172 (5 suppl). pp. s1). "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a medical
diagnosis referring to a specific number of abnormalities associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Fetal Alcohol
Effects (FAE) is a term used to describe the presence of some, but not all, FAS characteristics when prenatal exposure to
alcohol has been confirmed". (Health Canada (2001).
The Facts: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Fetal; Alcohol Effects
Health Canada. p. 1).
ii. It is important to acknowledge at the outset of this report that although alcohol use in pregnancy is necessary for the
outcome of FASD, prevalence and incidence rates of the former cannot be equated with prevalence and incidence rates
of the latter.
Research Update 2005 5
largely restricted to sub-populations that may not be representative, some research is
methodologically weak, and there is a general lack of comparability among studies.6FAS is
estimated to occur at a rate of one to two per 1,000 live births, while FASD rates are less
clear but undoubtedly higher.7In Health Canada’s Framework for Action on FASD, the
incidence is estimated to be nine in 1,000 live births.8With the recent publication of
guidelines for diagnosing FASD, the calculated incidence will likely become increasingly
accurate. It is also estimated that the incidence of FAS/FASD in some Aboriginal
communities in Canada is higher.9,10 Studies have suggested rates from 25 to 200 per
1,000 live births in some isolated northern communities.11 There are no known studies that
have researched FAS/FASD among other sub-populations of Canadians.12
Evidence is emerging, but still inconclusive, on the amount of alcohol, if any, women can
safely use during pregnancy without affecting the fetus.13-16 The amount,iii timingiv and
frequencyvof alcohol intake are critical factors in determining risk for FASD; however,
other factors, including the mother’s age, health, other substances used and the genetic
susceptibility of the mother and of the fetus17 also help to determine outcomes. Recent
research suggests that more moderate levels of drinking during pregnancy, in comparison
to patterns of drinking that produce high levels of blood alcohol content, may cause long-
term cognitive impairments.vi, 18-20 In the absence of conclusive information, Health Canada
and other authorities, including the US Department of Health and Human Services,21,22
recommend that women abstain from drinking alcohol during pregnancy.vii Public health
messaging similarly surrounds the adverse effects of alcohol on nursing infants (e.g.
sleep–wake patterns, decreased milk intake, impaired motor development), and education
about breastfeeding scheduling is promoted to ensure women that their babies will not be
exposed to alcohol.23-25
iii. An “unsafe” amount of alcohol consumption is commonly defined as 5 or more drinks on one occasion, or binge
drinking. Some define it as 4 or more drinks on one occasion to account for women’s slower metabolism rate compared
with that of men’s.
iv. Timing refers to the stage of pregnancy at which women drink. Alcohol-related damage to the fetus during the early
stages of conception (first three weeks) can lead to miscarriage; up to 12 weeks, it can include abnormalities of the head
and face, damage to the brain and lower birth weight; and at later stages, drinking can also cause developmental delays.
Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission:
v. An “unsafe” frequency of alcohol consumption is commonly defined as 7 or more drinks per week.
vi. A concern with studies that focus on moderate levels of alcohol consumption is that they frequently disregard the
complexity of drinking behaviour and measure average levels of consumption. Abel commented that “[s]ince it is blood
alcohol level, rather than the amount of alcohol consumed, this is critical for producing fetal damage; the difference in
drinking patterns is a critical factor determining the potential dangers of alcohol” (Abel 1996). Moderate drinking during
Clinica Chimica Acta
, 246, 149–154). To illustrate, the calculation of an average level of consumption does
not account for differences between two scenarios: woman A drank 2 alcoholic beverages on Friday evening and 5 on
Saturday evening, and woman B drank 1 alcoholic beverage each night of the week with her dinner.
vii. There are national and international debates over appropriate public health messaging regarding drinking during
pregnancy. See later prevention-specific sections of this report for more information.
6Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
To support the health of pregnant women in Canada and to arrive at the most effective
responses, it is important to understand the patterns of use among women drinking during
pregnancy, the characteristics of these pregnant women, and the circumstances of their
drinking. It is also equally important to be knowledgeable about current public health,
social and legal responses to women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy.
8Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
A systematic analysis of existing, published data on women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy
was undertaken. The data were collected from available literature spanning the medical and
social science disciplines.viii The primary inclusion criteria were post-1995,ix Canadian, peer-
reviewed literature on women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy. When Canadian literature
was lacking, as it was particularly with respect to evaluated responses, the international
(primarily US) literature was consulted. Also, the applicable FAS and FASD literature was
more heavily drawn upon in the response section.xFor all sections, research reports, reviews,
discussion documents and personal communication with field experts were drawn on when
limited evidence-based literature was located.xi Although no attempt was made to rate studies
for this update, the greatest attention was paid to experimental and quasi-experimental
studies. For the most part, the review of patterns of women’s alcohol use during pregnancy
and their characteristics and circumstances is confined to published survey data and
localized case file review and qualitative studies. Every attempt was made to account for
the most recent Canadian data from the growing number of Canadian data sources.
viii. The following databases were searched for (English-only) literature: Arts and Humanities Citation Index; Canadian Centre
on Substance Abuse Library Collection Database; Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Library Database; Criminal
Justice Abstracts; Digital Dissertations; DrugScope; ETOH Archival Database (Alcohol and Alcohol Problems Science);
ERIC; MEDLINE; PsycINFO; Sociological Abstracts; and Social Science Citation Index. The key words used in the search
were alcohol, alcohol use, drug, substance, pregnancy, alcohol warning label, prenatal, and addiction. Additional terms
and their derivations were used to access the literature specific to responses, such as treatment and prevention. These
terms were searched in a variety of ways depending on the database and were not searched together. For instance, terms
were searched as a “topic” in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, whereas they were searched as “keywords” in
Sociological Abstracts. Over 100 articles were selected for review.
The following Web sites were searched for (English-only) literature:
Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC); Best Start: Ontario’s Maternal Newborn and Early Child
Development Resource Centre; Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI); Canadian Institute of Health Research
(CIHR); Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA); Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS); Canadian Public Health
Association (CPHA); Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development (CEECD); Centres for Excellence in Women’s
Health (CEWH); Cochrane Reviews; FAS/E Support Network of BC; FASlink; FASWorld; Fetal Alcohol Syndrome topic
page, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA;
Government of Canada; Health Canada; Motherisk; Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC); SAMHSA Fetal Alcohol
Spectrum Disorders (FASD) Center for Excellence; Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC); Status
of Women Canada (SWC); and The Women’s Addiction Foundation. For the majority of Web sites, searches employed the
keywords “pregnan*” AND “alcohol.” This search string varied slightly from Web site to Web site depending on the
sophistication of each Web site’s search utility. The majority of Web sites allowed for keyword searches using only one or
two terms (pregnan* & alcohol). A limited number of Web sites used “advanced search” options, whereby the entire Web
site or the publications/library catalogue could be searched. Advanced search options often allowed for the use of specific
subject headings (pregnant, pregnancy, alcohol) in conjunction with date parameters. Therefore, from one Web site to
another the effectiveness of the search utility varied greatly. As a result, the most relevant results were found by
conducting a broad search for “pregnan*” or “pregnan* AND alcohol” and reviewing the list of results. In addition, Web
pages, PDF documents and/or sections of Web sites were scanned for relevant material. Over 50 documents were
selected for review.
ix. Pre-1995 articles were included when more recent literature was not located and/or it was a significant document.
x. This document, therefore, in some ways can be viewed as an update to Health Canada’s 2000 report
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome/Fetal Alcohol Effects and the Effects of Other Substance Use During Pregnancy
, prepared by
Gary Roberts and Jo Nanson.
xi. This method corresponds with Rehm’s liberal approach to inclusion criteria for reviews. Rehm, J. (1999). Review papers
in substance abuse research.
, 94(2), 173–176.
Research Update 2005 9
The research update proceeds from a review of the epidemiology of women’s use of
alcohol, particularly in relation to pregnancy, to a review of the literature on effective
responses. The literature on responses to women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy is
dominated with the prevention of FASD. This review reflects this and gives priority to peer-
reviewed studies that used an experimental and quasi-experimental design. The responses
sections use the framework proposed by the Institute of Medicine,26 distinguishing between
universal, selective and indicated prevention of prenatal alcohol use problems. Training and
professional development, and policy and legal responses are also discussed. Because
there are few peer-reviewed Canadian evaluation studies, most of the empirical literature is
US-based. Although it was beyond the scope of this report to identify all relevant non-peer-
reviewed Canadian literature, an attempt was made to identify key Canadian evaluation
reports and other documents that reflect recommended practices.
What the Studies Say Recognizing the data limitations, the surveys
show that overall, approximately three quarters of adolescent girls and adult women
in Canada reported the use of alcohol in the 12 months prior to the survey. On
average, over 10% reported heavy drinking at least once a month, with the rate
typically higher among young women. Among adolescent girls and young women,
prevalence and frequency of drinking and heavy drinking are higher. Drinking among
school-aged females appears to have increased from the late 1980s to the late
1990s, with relative stability since. These findings raise concerns for the health and
safety of young women, and if pregnant, the fetus. Rates are understood to be higher
still for female youth who are not enrolled in school or are living on the street, and
their use is typically riskier in comparison with their high school counterparts.
It is well established in the literature that women in general have
lower levels of alcohol use and problematic use compared with
men,27 yet women are at a greater risk of developing alcohol-
related problems.28 This is due partly to biological factors, such as
body composition and hormonal influences. Social factors specific
to sex and gender, such as victimization and lack of social support,
are also significant contributors to women’s alcohol-related
problems. To help inform current discussions on what works best
to respond to pregnant women’s use of alcohol and related harms,
it is important to first become acquainted with the overall use of
alcohol by women in Canada.
The data presented in this section and the next are gathered
mostly from published articles reporting on national and provincial
surveys.xii These surveys typically report on prevalence, frequency
and level of use (i.e. how many women use, how often and how
muchxiii). This is important because, as mentioned, fetal
development has been linked to the amount of alcohol used (i.e.
peak blood alcohol levels) and frequency of drinking. Excessive
alcohol consumption over time has also been linked to serious
xii. There may be more recent data collected in Canada on women’s use of alcohol during
pregnancy than reported on here (e.g. 2003 Canadian Community Health Survey, 2002-
03 National Longitudinal Survey on Children and Youth); however, it was not publicly
available for this report. As outlined in the methodology section, this research update
focuses solely on published data.
xiii. Surveys typically also report on high-risk drinking and dependence using tools such as
the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), which measures hazardous and
harmful drinking, alcohol dependence and some specific consequences of drinking.
Survey Data Weaknesses
Note that there are
weaknesses with survey
data. These weaknesses
include superficial coverage
of complex topics, non-
inadequate assessment of
the effects of social life,
weak validity, poor
underestimation and an
inability to measure
some topics.30 Marginalized
women, who may be
particularly at risk for
drinking during pregnancy,
are also less likely to be
reached by and/or respond
to formal surveys.
12 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Research Update 2005 13
health problems in women, such as liver, heart, stomach and brain damage, as well as
some forms of cancer.29
According to a 2004 national survey31 of Canadians’ (15 and older) use of alcohol and
other drugs, 76.8% of females reported consuming alcohol in the past year. The 2000-01
Canadian Community Health Survey, Cycle 1.1 (CCHS) similarly reported on past-year
drinking, for respondents 12 and older, with 73.1% of these females reporting use of
alcohol. Of the females who reported drinking in the past year, their frequency of use
ranged widely: 32.6% drank less than once per month, 13.4% once a month, 16.1% 2 to
3 times a month, 13.4% once a week, 19.7% 2 to 6 times a week, and 4.8% every day.32
Looking at the level of alcohol used by Canadians, heavy drinking was defined in the 2004
Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS) as 4 or more drinks on a single occasion for women.
Among female past-year drinkers (15 and older), 3.3% reported heavy drinking at least
once a week and 17.0% reported heavy drinking at least once a month.33 In the 2000-01
CCHS (defining heavy drinking for females as 5 or more drinks per occasion), 8.3% of
women reported heavy drinking at least once a month. The CCHS data further relayed that
twice as many Aboriginal as non-Aboriginal women reported drinking at this level.34 In
addition to the limitations of survey data already outlined, a further weakness is that
differing definitions of variables make it difficult to compare datasets. This may help to
explain the above difference in reported levels of heavy drinking between the 2004 CAS
and 2000-01 CCHS.
Frequency of Drinking, Females 12 and Older, 2000-01
Once per Week
2-6 Times per Week
2-3 Times per Month
Once per Month
Less than Once per Month
Source: R.A. Cormier, C.A. Dell and N. Poole. (2003). Women’s health surveillance report. A multidimensional look at the health
of Canadian women. Ottawa: Canadian Institute for Health Information.
14 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Increasing attention is being paid to the use of alcohol by adolescent girls and young
women. Adolescence is a time of brain and hormonal maturation, and adolescent drinking
patterns can influence later patterns, so it is likely there are long-term consequences to
alcohol use by this population. According to the 2001-2002 Health Behaviour in School
Aged Children (HBSC) survey, 22% of females in Grade 10, 12% of girls in Grade 8 and
2% of girls in Grade 6 reported drinking any alcoholic beverage once a week or more.35
Canadian studies have also revealed that young people are more likely to engage in sex
without the use of contraception when they are drinking.36 In a US study, one third of
pregnant 14- to 21-year-olds reported they were drinking when they became pregnant.37
There is some indication as well that young women tend to identify their pregnancy later
in term than older women.38 Also of concern are studies that report that the younger a
woman is when she starts drinking, the more likely she is to develop a problem with
alcohol later in life.39
Insight: Substance Use Before Age 13
In an informal evaluation of the Edmonton First Steps Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder
program, which offers mentorship for women who are pregnant or who have recently
given birth and have used drugs or alcohol during their pregnancy, it was found that of
the 96 female program clients interviewed, all had begun to use alcohol and/or drugs
prior to age 13.
Young Women's Use of Alcohol
(Drinking Any Alcoholic Beverage Once a Week or More), 2001-02
Source: Anon. Health Behaviour in School Age Children–Survey Data 2001-2002.
Available at http://phaspc.gc.ca/dca-dea/publications/pdf/hbsc 01 2candat.pdf
Surveys conducted during the 1990s have indicated that the
prevalence of drinking among high school students in Canada has
increased substantially.41 The Ontario Student Drug Use Survey
(OSDUS), which is commonly used as a proxy for drinking
patterns among school-aged children in Canada, found that
drinking declined during the late 1980s but increased during the
late 1990s, and has shown relative stability since.42 The 2000-01
CCHS reported that 71.1% of females between 15 and 19 years
of age used alcohol in the previous 12 months.43 Although
not differentiated by sex, the 2004 CAS survey reported that
approximately 90% of Canadians between 18 and 24 consumed
alcohol within the past year.44 Data from the 1996-97 National
Population Health Survey (NPHS) also showed that younger
women were more likely to report regular drinking than older
women: 59% of women 20 to 24 years of age and 56% of women
18 to 19 years of age drank regularly, compared with
approximately 50% of women between 25 and 54, 41% of those
55 to 64, 34% aged 64 to 74, and 23% of those 75 and older.45
There is little information available on youth who are out of the
mainstream, but indications are that the percentage of these
females drinking alcohol is higher and their pattern of use is
riskier than their high school counterparts.46 Young women who
are homeless/living on the street are at particular risk for a range
of harms related to their heavy substance use and other risk
Of significant concern is the
level of drinking by
adolescent girls and young
women.48, 49 Typically, young
women are more likely
to binge drink (i.e. more
than 4 or 5 drinks per
occasion) than older
women. For example, in the
1998 Canadian Campus
Survey 56.1% of females
reported consuming 5 or
more drinks on a single
occasion at least once
during the school year, and
25.2% reported consuming
8 or more drinks on a single
occasion.50 Although not
directly comparable, the
2003 OSDUS found that
21.7% of females reported
consuming 5 or more drinks
on one occasion at least
once in the 4 weeks before
the survey. This is higher
than the 18% reported in
2001, but nearly identical to
the 21.5% reported in
Research Update 2005 15
Use Patterns During
Drinking While Pregnant and Levels of Consumption . . .18
Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25
18 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
What the Studies Say It appears from the published data on
women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy that the rate of alcohol use has generally
declined in both Canada and the US from the mid to late 1990s. However, it is
important to emphasize here the limitations of self-report data as well as the
frequent exclusion of marginalized women from survey data. Nonetheless,
approximately one seventh of Canadian women (less than 15%) use alcohol while
pregnant, and a similar but lower percentage was found in the US. Canadian women
who report using alcohol during pregnancy appear to use it infrequently, although the
data are limited. For women of childbearing age (18–44), the reported rate of alcohol
use is similar, albeit slightly lower compared with the percentage of women who use
alcohol in the general population. A small proportion of women report heavy drinking
during pregnancy, though again the data are limited. Comparing the definitions of
heavy drinking, both of which are linked to increased risk of damage to the fetus, it
appears that a greater percentage of women engage in drinking 12 or more drinks a
week than drink 5 or more drinks on one occasion. Canadian studies on the use of
alcohol by pregnant Aboriginal women conclude a high rate and level of use;
however, there have been limited comparisons made with other populations and there
is a lack of clear understanding for this (e.g. possibly more candid self-reporting by
Aboriginal women, the influence of other mitigating factors such as poverty).
4.1 Drinking While Pregnant and Levels of Consumption
It is important to state at the outset that the lives of the women conveyed in the data should
not be judged, as this would contribute to the detrimental stigma that surrounds women
who use alcohol during pregnancy. Further, although the women are using a substance
while pregnant, in nearly all cases, they had started before becoming pregnant.52 An
evaluation report by Poole (2000) of the Sheway Project for high-risk and pregnant and
parenting women reminds us in her review of the international literature that “women using
substances during pregnancy have been described both as struggling with the many
pressures put on them and demonstrating remarkable strength and resourcefulness.”53
This cannot be forgotten.
… the lives of the women conveyed in the data should not be judged, as this
would contribute to the detrimental stigma that surrounds women who use
alcohol during pregnancy.
Research Update 2005 19
Insight: Who’s at Risk?...Because Risks Change and Vary
Although women who drink during pregnancy are at risk of having a child with FASD,
prevalence and incidence rates of the former cannot be equated with prevalence and
incidence rates of the latter. Also, women who drink during pregnancy are not a
homogeneous group, and include women who are alcohol dependent, women who
abuse alcohol on an episodic basis, and women who drink infrequently or regularly at
low amounts. Amount, timing and frequency of alcohol intake, alongside other factors
such as mother’s health and genetic susceptibility of the fetus, are critical factors in
determining risk for FASD.
The collection of information on women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy may be
undertaken through the use of three methodologies:
1. self-report questionnaires and interviews
2. screening tools
First, most of the information collected on alcohol use in pregnancy is based on self-report
data gathered through interviews, self-administered questionnaires and intake histories
administered for either clinical or research purposes.54 In addition to the limitations
identified with survey questionnaires above, the use of self-report methodologies to collect
information about alcohol use in pregnancy is further limited by the associated social
stigma, feelings of guilt and shame and/or fear of repercussions (including fear of child
welfare involvement and, in some jurisdictions in the US, incarceration).55-57 The validity of
self-report data may be enhanced when it is gathered in the context of a respectful, non-
judgmental, ongoing and trusting relationship in which women are engaged with a health
care or social service provider.58
Second, the use of screening tools to identify levels of alcohol use in pregnant women is
a potentially good source for data, but at present there is no consistent application of
screening tools. In addition, some health care professionals hesitate to use them (reasons
include absence of training in use of the tools and no coverage for their use in medical
plans).59 The screening methodology also relies on self-report and is therefore limited
by the factors discussed above. Once again, the ability of women to be honest in their
responses on screening tools is enhanced if the tools are administered within the context
of a respectful, trusting and ongoing relationship with a service provider.
xiv. Meconium is the first stool of a newborn child.
Third, biological markers are a means to collect information after
a woman has delivered a baby. Biomarkers (hair and meconiumxiv)
are biological data taken from the neonate in order to identify a
mother who has used alcohol at risky levels in her pregnancy and
to identify an infant who has been exposed. The use of biomarker
data to identify women and children is not routinely used in
Canada, and remains controversial. Further research has been
recommended,60 with the stipulation that it must be conducted
alongside an inclusive social and legal-ethical policy debate
regarding the use of biomarkers to identify women and children.
Keeping these limitations in mind, the data that are available are
nonetheless important to help to begin to identify drinking
patterns among pregnant women that in turn can be used to
inform current discussions on what works best to respond to
pregnant women’s use of alcohol and related harms.
The use of alcohol by women during pregnancy is an important
issue to examine on its own. However, it is necessary to preface
this discussion with the recognition that alcohol use, and most
specifically alcohol abuse, commonly occurs in combination with
other substances. It is widely acknowledged that heavy
substance-using women rarely use a single substance.61,62 It is
also recognized that not all substances are equally harmful, and
associated factors such as combinations of use, levels of exposure
and related risk behaviours contribute to differing outcomes. The
Maternal Health Practices and Child Development Study in the
US (Pennsylvania) reported that 76% of adult women who
smoked during the first trimester of pregnancy also used
alcohol.64 Further, among pregnant US teenagers surveyed, 61%
who smoked during the first trimester of their pregnancy also
reported drinking alcohol.65 This has important implications for
effective responses to pregnant women’s use of alcohol and
related harms in that alcohol use cannot be viewed in isolation
from other potentially harmful behaviours or from the realities of
women’s lives (e.g. poverty, low social support) that lead to the
Multiple Risk Factors
The Saskatoon Pregnancy
and Health Study found that
36% of the women
engaging in two risk
behaviours during the first
trimester of their pregnancy,
the most common
combinations being alcohol
and caffeine use (24%).
About 16% of respondents
reported three risk
behaviours, which were in
almost all cases drinking,
smoking and caffeine
20 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Research Update 2005 21
Keep in mind that there are weaknesses with survey data.66 It is also evident in the
presentation of the survey findings that many of the datasets are not comparable, and so
what emerges are “pieces of a picture” that together provide as complete a picture as
possible. As will be relayed in the recommendation section, there is much need for
improvement in the data that are collected in Canada on women’s drinking during
pregnancy to provide an accurate portrayal. The intent of this overview is to provide
a general statement based on often very disparate and incomplete survey findings.
The percentage of women reporting alcohol use during pregnancy has recently decreased
in Canada.67 The most recent published data on the prevalence of women’s use of alcohol
during pregnancy is located in the 2005 overview,
Report on Maternal and Child Health
, which relayed that “roughly 14% [of mothers] reported drinking alcohol (any
amount) during pregnancy.”68 Similarly, the 2000-01 CCHS indicates that 13.7% of all
women who reported using alcohol in their lifetime also consumed alcohol during their
last pregnancy. Similar findings were also reported in the 1998-99 National Longitudinal
Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY): 14.4% of women reported drinking at some point
during their pregnancy, and 4.9% drank throughout.69 Comparing these ratesxv to the
1994-95 National Population Health Survey (NPHS) and the 1994-95 NLSCY, these
surveys similarly reported that between 17% and 25% of women drank alcohol at some
point during their pregnancy, and between 7% and 9% drank alcohol throughout their
pregnancy.70,71 For the most part, women who reported drinking during their pregnancy
in the 2000-01 CCHS did so infrequently: 75.4% drank less than once per month, 9.7%
once per month, 6.5% two or three times per month, 5.3% once per week and 1.3%
drank every day.72
Insight: Self-Reporting – Does It Reveal the Whole Picture?
The above findings are comparable to results from a 2000 survey of Canadian women’s
views on whether they would drink should they become pregnant; 85% said they would
However, in a 2002 poll of Canadians’ perceptions and opinions about women’s
use of alcohol during pregnancy, 22% felt that more than one third of pregnant women
Although the comparability of this Canadian poll data to
pregnant women’s self-reported use of alcohol is limited, it is interesting to note that
this finding is considerably higher in comparison to the self-report data discussed.
xv. The CCHS analyses are for females 12 and older; however, the question is specific to the respondent’s last pregnancy,
making the data comparable to the NPHS and NLSCY.
xvi. Consumed alcohol more than once a week.
22 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
In comparison, the 2002 US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey established
that approximately 10% of women reported alcohol use while pregnant.75 Using data from
the same survey, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the rate of
any alcohol use during pregnancy declined from an average of 14.6% between 1988 and
1995 to 12.8% in 1999.xvii, 76 The drinking rate and decline match the Canadian findings.
Insight: Did You Know?
The 1996-97 NPHS found that 51% of sexually active 15- to 19-year-old females in
Canada had sex without a condom
the explicit intention of becoming pregnant
in the year prior to the survey.
In the absence of available data on the prevalence of women’s use of alcohol during
pregnancy, drinking by women of childbearing age (typically defined as 11–44, 15–44
or 18–44 years) is often examined for insight. These data are also valuable because
approximately 40% of pregnancies are reported to be unplanned, with higher rates among
teenage and older women.78 A 2004 Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC)
report analyzed the 2000-01 CCHS, comparing women 18 to 44 years of age who were or
were not pregnant at the time of the survey. It is important to mention that most of the
CCHS questions asked about the previous 12 months, so responses from women who were
pregnant at the time of the study may reflect alcohol use prior to their pregnancy. Overall,
72.8% of women of childbearing age in Canada who were pregnant at the time of the
survey, and 82.3% of those who were not, reported drinking alcohol in the past 12 months.
Although not an equivalent study population, the 2002 US Behavioral Risk Factor
Surveillance Survey found that more than half of female respondents who were of
childbearing age (18–44), and were not using birth control, reported using alcohol.79
In AADAC’s analysis of CCHS data for Alberta, women who were pregnant at the time of the
survey were much less likely to drink on a regular basis (defined as at least once per week)
than women who were not pregnant: 41.6% of pregnant women and 32.1% of non-
pregnant women reported drinking less than once per month; 19.3% versus 16.2% drank
once per month; 22.3% versus 20.2% drank 2 to 3 times per month; 11.1% versus 17.6%
drank once per week, 5.8% versus 9.7% drank 2 to 3 times per week, and 2.1% of non-
pregnant women drank 4 to 6 times per week and 2.0% drank every day.80 These numbers
are encouraging in that they are lower in comparison to the CCHS data on the frequency of
alcohol use by all Canadian women, keeping in mind that the ages and populations of the
women are different.
xvii. From the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, there was a reported increase in women’s alcohol use during pregnancy by the
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
xviii. Also termed binge drinking.
xix. Recall the caveat in the collection of the data discussed above.
xx. Again, recall the caveat in the collection of the data discussed above.
Examining the use of alcohol in the week prior to the 2000-01
CCHS, 13.3% of pregnant women in Canada and 54.6% of non-
pregnant women reported drinking. There were similar findings in
the US 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, in which
it was estimated that 13.8% of women 15 to 44 years of age and
pregnant, and 47.8% of women who were not pregnant and of
childbearing age consumed alcohol.81
Drawing on the 1994-95 NPHS and the 1994-95 NLSCY to
examine levels of alcohol use among women who reported drinking
alcohol at some point during their pregnancy, 94% consumed fewer
than 2 drinks on the days they drank, 3% had between 3 and 4
drinks, and less than 3% drank 5 or more drinks.82 The 2000-01
CCHS measured heavy drinkingxviii among women who reported
drinking in the past year, and found that 9.9% of pregnant women
at the time of the surveyxix and 16.4% of non-pregnant women
reported having 5 or more drinks on one occasion once a month
or more, and 2.1% of pregnant women and 4.2% of non-pregnant
women reported consuming 5 or more drinks on one occasion once
a week or more. Comparably, the 2002 US Behavioral Risk Factor
Surveillance Survey found that 2% of pregnant women and 12% of
women of childbearing years (18–44) engaged in binge drinking (5
or more drinks on one occasion).83
Figure 3: Alcohol Use by Pregnant and Non-Pregnant Women
13.3% 54.6% 13.8% 47.8% 6.9% 8.6%9.9% 16.4%2.1% 4.2%2.0% 12.0%
Consumed Alcohol Heavy drinking > 5or more drinks/ 5 or more drinks/ Binge drinking
12 drinks/week occasion 1x/month occasion once a 5 or more drinks/
or more week or more occasion
Pregnant - CCHS
Non-Pregnant - CCHS
Pregnant - 1999 U.S.
Non-Pregnant - 1999 U.S.
Source: 2000-01 Canadian Community Health Survey US 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse
Heavy Drinking Rates
The 2000-01 CCHS also
measured heavy drinking as
regularly drinking more than
12 drinks per week, and 6.9%
of pregnant women at the time
of the surveyxx and 8.6% of
non-pregnant women reported
heavy drinking. In examining
heavy drinking in the week
prior to the survey, 0.5% of
pregnant and 3.6% of non-
pregnant women reported
drinking more than 12 drinks.
Of those surveyed, 12.5% of
pregnant and 47.7% of non-
pregnant women reported
consuming between 1 and 9
drinks in the week prior to the
survey.84 In the US, the
Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention found that in
1999 more women reported
heavy drinking while pregnant
compared with pooled
estimates of such drinking
from 1998 to 1995.
Specifically, 2.1% of women in
1999 reported having 7 or
more drinks a week and 3.3%
reported having 5 or more
drinks on one occasion.85 The
literature indicates that heavy
drinking has a higher
association with adverse
Research Update 2005 23
There are also provincial and local Canadian studies that report
on the rate of women’s drinking while pregnant and their levels
of consumption. The studies often differ in methodologies and
populations, and therefore are not easily comparable.
Nonetheless, they add valuable insight into the subject area.
A large majority focus on what they variously define as high-risk
women. For example, the Saskatoon Pregnancy and Health
Study accessed pregnant women for interviews through a
prenatal program (not high-risk) and an outreach program
(high-risk). Approximately 46% of the women interviewed
reported drinking alcohol during the first three months of their
pregnancy, with 75% consuming fewer than 2 drinks a week
on average.87 A study of pregnant women in Toronto who were
seeking counselling found that 3.1% of clinic patients and
0.8% of telephone clients reported having 5 or more standard
drinks per occasion at some point during their pregnancy.88
The focus on Aboriginal communities with high rates of alcohol
abuse and regions with large concentrations of Aboriginal
peoples has meant that Canada lacks epidemiological data
regarding other populations, making it difficult to determine
whether or not Aboriginal women are at greater risk than
other groups. Further attention also needs to be paid to the
methodology surrounding studies with Aboriginal populations
(e.g. possibly more accurate account of alcohol use by
Aboriginal women because of the acknowledgement that
alcohol use/abuse is a health and social problem among their
people91 and greater attention on the influence of mitigating
factors, such as poverty).
on Aboriginal Women
Canadian studies on
women’s use of alcohol
during pregnancy, in
particular in relation to FAS
and FASD, disproportionately
focus on Aboriginal women
and the geographic areas in
which they live.89 Further,
Canadian studies of FAS/FAE
prevalence rates have
focused on Aboriginal
communities where alcohol
abuse and dependency are
known to be high. This raises
the concern that the high
prevalence rates of FAS/FAE
found in these communities
will be used to describe rates
of FAS/FAE in the general
24 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Research Update 2005 25
4.2 Recommendations and Implications
The following research recommendations are aimed at improving data collection efforts and
identifying valuable research questions so that a better understanding of the patterns of
women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy can be determined.
Implement systematic surveillance practices to monitor women’s use of alcohol and
other drugs during pregnancy in all provinces and territories.xxi This should include the
development of more valid and reliable measures of substance use during pregnancy,
taking into account current experiences with surveys, interviews and screening instruments.
For example, standardize the use of gender-appropriate definitions of heavy drinking on
surveys (e.g. binge drinking as 4 or more drinks on one occasion for women and 5 or more
for men), and relate alcohol-specific questions only to the period of each respondent’s
pregnancy. Attention should also be given to ongoing methodological problems, such as
small sample sizes of pregnant women and the under-use of qualitative methodologies.
1. In conjunction with the implementation of systematic surveillance practices
to monitor women’s use of alcohol and other drugs during pregnancy, develop
research environments and relationships that are respectful, non-judgmental,
sensitive and acknowledge the reasons why women use alcohol in pregnancy.
These conditions may facilitate openness and comfort for women to provide
more candid information.
2. Adopt a woman-centred approach to data collection. Such an approach would
facilitate understanding in addressing women’s use of alcohol in pregnancy.
Although there is no agreement on an overarching definition of a women-centred
approach to research, it is commonly understood to be research that contributes
to the improvement of individual and group conditions for women and men,
stemming from social, political and economic improvement for women.
3. Avoid selection bias in studies. Attempts should be made to compile a random
sample of pregnant women and avoid focusing only on women who access
services for their drinking.
4. Use tailed methods for collecting information on sub-populations and marginalized
groups (e.g. street-involved girls and young women, sex trade workers).
xxi. The Canadian Perinatal Surveillance System (CPSS), as part of the Public Health Agency of Canada, is launching a
Maternity Experiences Survey to monitor important indicators during pregnancy, such as alcohol and drug use. This
survey will be the first of its kind in Canada. The target population is all women who have had a live birth in the months
prior to the survey. Phase I was completed in January 2001 with the testing of sampling strategies and the data
collection instrument. Health Canada and CPSS are currently developing the National Survey.
26 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
It is necessary to approach such studies by fully accounting for the range of risk
factors the women face and the influence of these on their alcohol consumption.
5. Analyze existing national datasets and publish regular and timely reports on women’s
use of alcohol during pregnancy and the use of alcohol by women of childbearing
age. Substance use trends should continue to be documented for pregnant women
using the NLSCY and CCHS. The analysis of data on women of childbearing age
is important, given the frequency and levels of alcohol use documented for this
population together with the prevalence of unplanned pregnancies.
6. Conduct longitudinal studies on alcohol use, starting with girls/young women
who are of childbearing age. This is important because of the high rates of
heavy drinking in this population.
7. Make available and accessible diagnostic services in Canadian communities
to determine incidence and prevalence rates of FASD.
8. Under what conditions are women able to reduce or stop alcohol consumption
once pregnancy has occurred? What contributes to pregnant women’s continued
use during pregnancy and/or after delivery?
9. What factors are underlying increased rates of alcohol use among adolescent
girls and young women as well as increased levels of consumption?
10. Is the apparent decline in the rate of alcohol consumption during pregnancy
from the mid to late 1990s accurate, and if so, why? How does this relate to
2000 rates in Canada?
11. What health risks do women pose to their bodies, physically, socially, mentally
and spiritually, when they drink alcohol while pregnant? In addition to FAS/FASD,
how do these risks potentially negatively influence pregnancy outcome?
12. Although the number of women who report using alcohol during pregnancy are
generally low, as are the reported levels of use, there are still women using and
some at high levels. Are there co-existing conditions in the lives of these women
that have not been identified or fully examined?
13. What combinations of alcohol and other substances (e.g. benzodiazepinesxxii),
alcohol and life circumstances (e.g. trauma), and alcohol and other harmful
behaviours (e.g. poor nutrition) are common among women of childbearing age?
xxii. Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants.
Women Who Use
Issues Faced by Women Who Use Alcohol . . . . . . . . . .28
Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32
28 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
What the Studies Say The co-existing conditions experienced by
pregnant women who use alcohol are generally related to other substance use (e.g. illicit
drugs, tobacco), mental health (e.g. cognitive impairments, depression) and life
circumstances (e.g. violence, low social support). Recent Canadian surveys and studies
contribute a partial understanding of the characteristics and life circumstances of
women who use alcohol while pregnant. Though the data are sporadic and some focus
only on one province, it is still meaningful. Overall, women who have higher incomes
and are older are more likely to report drinking alcohol during their pregnancy, younger
and older women are more frequent drinkers, and younger women are much more likely
to drink 5 or more drinks on one occasion as well as to have the lowest incomes. There
is limited information available on regional variations, but what does exist shows the
highest rates of alcohol use during pregnancy by women in Quebec and the lowest rates
in Atlantic Canada. The need for further research is clear.
5.1 Issues Faced by Pregnant Women Who Use Alcohol
Current research indicates that, for many women, pregnancy is a reason to reduce or stop
alcohol use.92-95 However, this is not the case for all women. Further, it is important to
recognize that not all women discover their pregnancy immediately, and therefore continue
to drink into their first trimester and for some even beyond. This may lend insight into the
profile of women who drink during pregnancy. It is important to know not only the rates,
frequency and levels at which women drink during pregnancy, but also their characteristics
and circumstances, to help inform current discussions on what strategies and approaches
are most effective. Similar to the review of data on women’s use of alcohol, the surveys and
research reported in this section do not provide a complete understanding. They do,
however, provide a starting point for describing women who drink while pregnant and the
breadth of interconnected factors that influence their lives. This is necessary to accurately
and comprehensively identify risk factors for specific populations.96
A 2004 report on substance abuse treatment and care for women released by the United
Nations, Office on Drugs and Crime, described women with substance use problems as generally
…having fewer resources (education, employment, income) than men, are more
likely to be living with a partner with a substance use problem, have care of
dependent children and have more severe problems at the beginning of
treatment.… [They] also have higher rates than men of trauma related to physical
and sexual abuse and concurrent psychiatric disorders, particularly post-traumatic
stress disorder and other mood and anxiety disorders (1).
Research Update 2005 29
According to the Canadian literature on women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy, there is a
vast interplay of issues that pregnant females face alongside their substance use. One factor
previously mentioned is use of other substances. Additional factors relate to social, legal and
health issues97-101 (see Table 1). It is important to acknowledge that complete agreement on
these factors does not exist among the various studies,102 but they do reflect a pattern that
is also seen in the US literature.103-109 It is also important to recognize that among Aboriginal
women in Canada these factors frequently reside in the context of colonial oppression and
its aftermath, such as ongoing social and economic marginalization and the intergenerational
link between residential schooling and FAS/FASD among Aboriginal peoples.110
Table 1: Summary of Co-existing Conditions Experienced by Pregnant Women Who
sole parenting violence, abuse, sexual exploitation, trauma
child(ren) in custody/changes in custody involvement in the criminal justice system
low income/social economic status/poverty low social support
limited access to prenatal/postnatal care previous birth of a child with prenatal and
services exposure to alcohol and/or other substances
feeling/experiencing loss of control low education and literacy levels
menial, low-paying employment problems concurrent physical and mental health
cognitive impairments, possibly due co-existing use of other substances
unplanned pregnancy/pregnancies shame
low self-esteem depression and other mental health issue(s)
historical and cultural factors pregnancy heavy consumption of alcohol prior to
older in age inadequate nutrition
mother’s own prenatal exposure to alcohol, alcohol, tobacco or other drug exposure at a
tobacco or other drugs young age
poor early childhood environment of the paternal/partner alcohol and drug use
women (stress, abuse, neglect) during the pregnancy
physical, mental, social and spiritual unstable housing and living conditions
30 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Some insight into the co-existing conditions that pregnant alcohol-using women face can
also be acquired from the study of birth mothers of children diagnosed with FAS. A leading
research project in Washington State in the US by Astley et al. (2000) generated a profile of
women who had given birth to a child diagnosed with FAS and identified factors that helped
and/or hindered the mother’s ability to achieve abstinence.xxiii, 111 Of 80 women enrolled in the
study, 50 had achieved abstinence by the time of their interview and 25 did not. Similar to the
characteristics reported above, overall the women were identified as high risk, many of them
dealing with mental health issues as well as victimization from abuse. The authors reported
on the life circumstances of women who had achieved abstinence as having, on average:
significantly higher I.Q.s, higher household incomes, larger more satisfactory social
support networks and were more likely to report a religious affiliation. While they
were equally likely to have mental health disorders, those who had achieved
abstinence were more likely to have received treatment…. Those who had achieved
abstinence reported higher levels of drinking just before the birth of the index child
and were more likely to have parents who had problems with alcohol use (513).
AADAC’s analysis of 2000-01 CCHS data for Alberta revealed clear income-based
differences among women who reported drinking alcohol during their last pregnancy.
Women with higher incomes were more likely to report drinking: 40.5% of women with an
income over $80,000 reported drinking, and this rate steadily declined to 9.9% of women
with an income of $29,999 and under.112 This finding for Alberta is supported in analyses of
Canadian data in the 1994-95 NPHS and the 1994-95 NLSCY. Both surveys reported that
alcohol use during pregnancy was most common among women with higher incomes.113
Income-based Differences Among Women Who Reported Drinking During
Their Last Pregnancy, 2000-01
Less than $29,999 More than $80,000
Source: Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC). (2004). Windows of opportunity: A statistical profile of
substance abuse among women in their childbearing years in Alberta. Edmonton: AADAC.
xxiii. Abstinence was defined as “consumed no alcohol or consumes minimal quantities only on special occasions” Astley, S.,
Bailey, D., Talbot, C., & Clarren, S. (2000). Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) primary prevention through FAS diagnosis: II.
A comprehensive profile of 80 birth mothers of children with FAS.
Alcohol & Alcoholism
, 25(5), p. 513.
The 1994-95, 1996-97 and 1998-99 NLSCY data also indicate
that women who are older are more likely to report alcohol
consumption during pregnancy. The most recent 1998-99 NLSCY
data reveal that 14.1% of children under 2 and whose mothers
were under 25 at the time of the survey were exposed to some
alcohol prenatally compared with 21.6% of children whose
mothers were 35 years and older.114
AADAC also examined the frequency of alcohol intake by women
in Alberta who were pregnant at the time of the survey. It was found
that women of childbearing age in the youngest age group (18–20)
were the least likely to drink less than once per month. Women in
both the youngest and oldest groups (18–20 and 31–44) were more
likely to be frequent drinkers (between one and six times a week)
than women between 21 and 30.115 It is noted in the report that this
finding fits with the US research showing more frequent drinking
among women of college age and those who are older.116
Examining the amount of alcohol consumed per occasion by
Alberta women of childbearing age (18–44), young women were
most likely to report drinking 5 or more drinks on one occasion
(14.1% of women 18–20 years of age drank this amount once or
more per week versus 6.2% in the 21–25 age group). In the two
oldest age groups (26–44), only 3% of women reported consuming
5 or more drinks on one occasion once or more per week. Once
again, the report acknowledges that this finding is consistent with
other research on drinking patterns, including US studies.117 To
illustrate, the 2002 US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey
reported that binge drinking for women who are pregnant and
women of childbearing age is highest among 18- to 24-year-olds
(19.4%), followed by 25- to 34-year-olds (13.1%) and then those
35 to 44 years of age (8.6%).118 So, although higher income
pregnant women in Alberta were more likely to be drinkers, when
they did drink, lower income pregnant women were more likely to
binge drink (i.e. drink 5 or more drinks on one occasion) once per
month or more (22.4% of women with incomes between $10,000
and $19,000) and once per week or more (9.2% of women with
incomes less than $10,000, 5.7% in the $10,000 to $19,999
income group, and 4% to 5% in income groups over $20,000).119
The Saskatoon Pregnancy and Health Study similarly determined
that pregnant women with higher incomes were more likely to use
in Alcohol Use
There was little information
located on regional variation in
alcohol use by pregnant
women; however, analysis of
the 1998-99 NLSCY reported
the highest rate of use in
Quebec (25.1%) and the
lowest in Atlantic Canada
(7.7%).121 This was also found
in the analysis of the 1994-95
and 1996-97 NLSCY.122,123 In
addition, a 2000 survey of
Canadian women found that
women in Quebec were much
less likely to state that they
would stop using alcohol if
they were to become
Research Update 2005 31
32 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
5.2 Recommendations and Implications
As in previous section, the research recommendations are aimed at improving data
collection efforts and identifying valuable research questions so that a better understanding
of the characteristics of women who use alcohol during pregnancy and the circumstances
of their use can be determined. The outlined policy and program implications aim to do the
same. Many of the research recommendations made in the prior section also apply here.
• Increase research attention on the characteristics and circumstances of women
who consume alcohol while pregnant and the contexts in which they drink (e.g.
influential role of partners and peers). This can be achieved through both survey
data and more qualitative, representative small-scale studies.
• Do not concentrate studies only on currently over-represented sub-populations
(e.g. poor, young women, Aboriginal women). For example, the CCHS and US
studies suggest that women with the highest incomes and in the oldest age
group are more likely to drink alcohol during pregnancy.
• Continue to collect data and conduct further analyses on women who binge
drink during pregnancy (in particular young women) and those who are alcohol
dependent, as these forms of consumption present the greatest potential
harm to the fetus.
• Develop well-designed, multi-site, multi-year qualitative studies that can gather
in-depth information on the women’s characteristics and circumstances of
women who drink at varying levels and frequency during pregnancy.
• Conduct further studies on women who have given birth to FAS-diagnosed
children to learn more about the risk factors for drinking during pregnancy
and/or the reasons for stopping or reducing their use.
• Several the data recommendations on women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy
are also applicable here, including the development of research environments in
which women are comfortable in discussing their lives, adoption of a woman-
centred approach to data collection, analysis of existing data, implementation of
longitudinal studies, publicly release of results in a timely manner, and the
collection and analysis of data by province and territory.
Research Update 2005 33
• What are the associations between alcohol use and the use of other substances
(e.g. illicit drugs, tobacco, caffeine, prescription and non-prescription drugs)
during pregnancy and for women of childbearing age?
• Do women view alcohol use during pregnancy as a high-risk behaviour (and how
does it compare with other behaviours, such as injection drug use)?
• Why are younger and older women the most frequent drinkers? What do they
have in common, if anything, to explain this?
• Why are younger women more likely to binge drink during pregnancy? What is
the association between binge drinking and income?
• What are the associations between life factors identified as contributing to
women’s use of alcohol while pregnant, with particular emphasis on the
influence of her partner?
• How does women’s use of alcohol during pregnancy relate to co-occurring
disorders in her life, such as depression?
• What are the unique needs and services required by pregnant women who
are alcohol dependent, compared with those who are binge drinkers and, if
applicable, women who use alcohol occasionally during pregnancy?
• What contributes to the reported higher rates of alcohol use during pregnancy
among women in Quebec and lower rates in the Atlantic Provinces? Are there
methodological and/or cultural explanations for these differences?
Policy and Program Implications
• Increase resources for pre- and postnatal care for women at risk, such as women
drinking heavily during pregnancy.
• Identify evidence-based interventions that help women reduce or stop their use
of alcohol during pregnancy, in particular those interventions that use a variety
of strategies to reach different sub-populations of women.
• Design and evaluate campaigns to succinctly convey to the Canadian public the
well-documented risks associated with drinking while pregnant, and tailor the
information to specific audiences. For example, an abstinence-based message
may not be the best means to reach some audiences (in particular women who
currently drink at heavy levels while pregnant). Consider including information
on general behaviours that contribute to a healthy pregnancy (e.g. nutrition) as
well as those that are harmful (e.g. smoking).
34 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
• Support perinatal and substance use treatment services that address the factors
in women’s lives that surround their substance use.
•Raise awareness and sensitivity among all agencies and persons who work within
the addictions field about the unique risks of the female population they serve, as
the women who are accessing treatment may be pregnant or become pregnant.
•Provide training to agencies and human service workers in follow-up services on
asking women about their alcohol use during pregnancy. Careful consideration also
must be given to the positions of the people who are asking the questions, as they
may be perceived to be in positions of power (e.g. child welfare).
•Prenatal alcohol use problems.
of Prenatal Alcohol
Population Health Promotion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .36
Alcohol Control Measures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .37
Public Awareness Activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .37
Measures Directed to Adolescents and Young Adults . . .41
Multi-Component Strategies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41
Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . .42
What the Studies Say Universal measures –
which address the general public or an entire population group
with policies, programs and messages – to prevent women’s
substance use during pregnancy can range from popular
approaches such as public awareness campaigns, to less popular
and controversial policy initiatives such as increasing taxation on
alcoholic beverages and mandating warning labels on alcoholic
beverage containers. Most universal prevention measures for this
issue have not been scientifically evaluated and many suffer from
weak program design; the most evaluated measure, beverage
warning labels, has been shown to affect awareness in the
general population in the short term and drinking behaviour
among low-risk women only. Nevertheless, well-designed and
evaluated universal prevention measures have the potential to
create an environment within which a range of more intensive
and targeted measures can receive support and effectively operate.
For the purposes of this section, universal prevention measures
address the general public or an entire population group
(community, school or neighbourhood) with policies, programs
and messages aimed at preventing prenatal alcohol use problems.
The measures discussed include population health promotion,
alcohol control, public awareness activities, measures directed to
adolescents and young adults, and multi-component strategies.
6.1 Population Health Promotion
Those serious about having an impact on the prevalence of
prenatal alcohol use must take into account broad factors that
have been shown to affect the health of individuals and
populations – income, education, quality jobs and social support.
Research shows that people with higher levels of education and
income generally have better states of health than those with low
income and less education; this effect is accentuated when there
is a large disparity between high- and low-income earners in a
population.125 Consistent with this pattern, women living in poverty,
for complex reasons, tend to have less healthy birth outcomes.126
Linking Prenatal Alcohol
Use and FASD to Social
While individuals and
neighbourhoods carry an
obvious responsibility in
promoting their own health,
many of the determinants of
health, such as income
levels, the distribution of
wealth and the degree of
disparity in living standards
are a function of
government policies. It is
therefore clear that
prevention will not occur
without attention being given
to policies that affect these
factors. No attempt has yet
been made in the scientific
literature to link changes in
problematic prenatal alcohol
use and FASD to social
36 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Research Update 2005 37
This pattern holds true for substance-related pregnancy issues. Although the picture is far
from complete, the data presented in the previous sections for Canada and the US suggest
that the prevalence of FASD is greater in lower socio-economic families and communities.
6.2 Alcohol Control Measures
It may be surmised that measures effective in limiting alcohol consumption, particularly heavy
consumption, in a general population would have the effect of reducing prenatal alcohol
exposure and FASD. Various regulatory approaches – for example, increased taxation,
advertising regulations, responsible service, and limiting hours of service or numbers of
outlets – have been recommended. In some jurisdictions, these approaches have been
implemented to reduce alcohol consumption. The regulatory measure to reduce consumption
that is most supported by evidence is increased pricing through taxation. One study showed
women reducing their consumption due to price increases more than men, which suggests
that this measure may be effective for reducing drinking by pregnant women.127 A limitation
of these alcohol-specific measures is that they do not account for individuals switching to
another substance when alcohol becomes less available – for whatever reason. Although the
empirical evidence on this phenomenon is limited,128 it is possible that some pregnant women
who cannot access beverage alcohol may seek out other substances, some of which could be
just as, or more, harmful (e.g. home brew, inhalants).
Community alcohol policies that guide whether and how alcohol is made available (e.g.
through special events licences) may be perceived as having an impact on this issue;
however, no relevant research was found. Lauzon et al. reported on an Ontario on-reserve
alcohol policy initiative that led to greater regulation of the sale and service of alcohol at
community events.129 Findings indicated a reduction of some problems; however, drinking
during pregnancy was not measured. Preliminary evidence from an Alaskan study suggests
that a community alcohol ban resulted in a significant reduction in heavy alcohol use among
pregnant women in the short term.130 The long-term implications have yet to be determined.
Having worked with many Ontario communities to develop municipal alcohol policies (MAPs)
that reduce alcohol-related harms, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is currently
adapting the approach to be culturally appropriate for First Nations, but no public
documentation of the process or outcome of this work has been made available to date.131
6.3 Public Awareness Activities
Public awareness activities are the most common universal prevention measure. However,
many have weak designs and have not been evaluated. Mandated warning labels are the
most studied universal prevention measure on this issue, with almost all of the research
originating in the US, which enacted this policy in 1989.
In a 2002 review of studies on warning labels in the US, Hankin
concluded that after several years of heightened awareness of
the labels and their messages, general population awareness
levels tended to slip in subsequent years. Stockwell suggested
that rotating and changing the messages would have the effect
of keeping them fresh and would reduce this “slippage” in
awareness.132 Hankin further found that “low-risk” pregnant
women reduced their alcohol consumption following the
implementation of the warning label, but women who drank
heavily during pregnancy did not.133 In another of the few
studies on warning labels and pregnant women, Kaskutas et al.
surveyed a nationally representative sample of pregnant women
in the US over a five-year span on their awareness of warning
labels, signs, advertisements and posters. They found that there
was no relationship between awareness of the various messages
and drinking levels during pregnancy.134 In a 1999 study,
Greenfield et al. found a positive relationship between the
amount of exposure to warning labels and conversations
about drinking and pregnancy.135
On February 1, 2005, Bill-43, referred to as “Sandy’s Law,” came
into effect in Ontario. This Bill requires establishments that are
licensed to serve or sell alcohol to post specific warning signs
about the risks of alcohol use in pregnancy. The regulations
specify the types of licensed establishments affected by this new
law, the size, language, wording and images for the signs, and
where the signs must be posted. The message on the signs reads:
“WARNING: Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth
defects and brain damage to your baby. 1-877-FAS-INFO
Fenaughty and MacKinnon studied the effectiveness of a
legislated warning poster in Arizona.136 The poster was required
in all establishments selling alcohol, and included the statement,
“Warning: Drinking Distilled Spirits, Beer, Coolers, Wine and Other
Alcoholic Beverages during Pregnancy Can Cause Birth Defects.”
They found that most of those studied had become aware of the
poster and its message, but that it had minimal impact on their
beliefs regarding the effect of alcohol on the fetus. Women and
older subjects were more likely to be aware of the poster than
men and younger subjects, respectively.
There have been several
recently implemented or
proposed in Canada,
including Bill-43 (Sandy’s
Law) in Ontario and related
Service programs; Alberta’s
FASD awareness campaign;
and a private member’s bill,
Bill C-206 (Government of
Canada), to legislate warning
labels on alcoholic beverage
38 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Research Update 2005 39
Responsible beverage service (RBS) programs work with managers and servers in licensed
establishments to help ensure that beverages are served responsibly (i.e. not served to
minors, intoxicated or disruptive patrons). There is good evidence to support these
programs generally.137 Some may see RBS programs having preventative potential on this
issue by placing servers in a role of refusing to sell alcohol to pregnant women; however,
this would be generally viewed as discriminatory and contentious. RBS programs may have
a role to play in raising awareness of this issue among bar managers and servers, but there
is no documentation of the impact of this type of measure.
In 1999-2000, the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC) conducted an
awareness-raising campaign for the Alberta Partnership on FAS. Among other aims, the
campaign intended to increase the awareness and profile of FAS in the province and used
television, radio and newspaper advertisements in addition to local initiatives that included
private sector involvement. A sample of 800 Albertans was surveyed prior to the campaign,
with another sample surveyed immediately following the television portion of the campaign
(a period of three months). According to a number of measures, a generally high level
of awareness and support for action remained unchanged as a result of the campaign.
However, recall of information related to alcohol and pregnancy rose significantly, with 61%
of Albertans reporting having seen, heard or read something about this issue prior to the
mass media element of the campaign compared with 73% immediately following.138
Health care providers are in an excellent position to offer brief, universal messages to
increase general public knowledge of the risks of alcohol use to the fetus and the
prevalence of unintended pregnancies. A general message that has been recommended is
“being sexually active, a frequent alcohol user, and not using effective contraception places
a woman at risk for having an alcohol-exposed pregnancy.”139 Important leadership on this
issue was provided by the US’s top physician, the US Surgeon General, during an update
of a 1981 statement in February of 2005, advising women who are pregnant or considering
becoming pregnant to abstain from alcohol.140
Insight: Evaluation – Poor at Best
Overall, public awareness-raising campaigns, while common, tend not to be evaluated.
The goals of such programs are also often not clearly articulated, making it difficult to
evaluate them using scientific methods. When the campaigns are evaluated, as with
warning labels, they tend to show modest benefits in terms of knowledge gains among
the general public and behaviour change seems confined to low-risk women.
40 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Some conclude that the small positive effect of beverage container warning labels and other
awareness-raising activities justifies a measure that costs government virtually nothing and the
alcohol industry very little.141 Others caution that harm may be caused by public awareness
messages that recommend abstinence as the only safe option for pregnant women. They argue
that, given the high percentage of women of childbearing age who drink, the high number of
unplanned pregnancies discovered later in their term, and that FASD is diagnosed primarily
in the children of heavy-drinking women, these public messages are unduly “alarmist.” The
contention is that these messages may lead to unnecessary anxiety and possible termination
of pregnancy among low-risk women, while failing to reach the women at greatest risk.142,143
In the face of some indication that exposure to lower amounts of alcohol may increase risk
of stillbirth and have an effect on the growth and cognitive skills of a child,xxiv the broad
message of abstinence during pregnancy is the most prudent universal message.144 This
general message needs to be complemented by clear, targeted messages from physicians
and other practitioners in contact with pregnant women to clarify the degree of risk
associated with different patterns of drinking (e.g. low, occasional levels of drinking vs.
frequent and binge drinking), and particular sub-populations (e.g. women who drink during
pregnancy who are considered high risk). Clear definitions of low, moderate, occasional and
frequent drinking need to be agreed upon to support these messages. It is important that
women, who for whatever reason, have consumed alcohol during pregnancy, be made
aware that stopping or reducing their consumption at any point, while attending to their
overall health, will increase the likelihood of positive outcomes for their unborn child.145
(See also section 7 – Selective Prevention Strategies).
Public awareness campaigns alone seem unable to shift behaviour among higher risk
women; however, it is arguable whether they should be held to that standard. By raising
awareness, these campaigns can help to establish overall norms on an issue – norms that
may help some pregnant women garner the support they need from partners, family and
friends to avoid use of alcohol.146
Insight: “Tilling the Soil”
The role for public awareness campaigns best supported by the literature is to
contribute to larger, multi-component strategies.
These strategies must be well
defined, evaluated and draw upon available advice. Beyond that, it has been suggested
that these universal prevention measures can play an important role in “tilling the
soil,” in that an informed public may be more inclined to support public expenditures
for more intensive strategies to address this issue.
xxiv. There are, however, concerns with these studies due to a lack of consensus on what constitutes low and moderate
drinking. In several cases, they are based on weekly averages that could hide high consumption during one or two
occasions during the week.
xxv. Teratogenic refers to the ability of a substance to produce malformations in a fetus.
It is critical that these efforts be well designed and evaluated, and
take advantage of available advice, such as the 2003 guide
to a Successful Alcohol and Pregnancy Communication
, by the Ontario government’s Best Start program.149
6.4 Measures Directed to Adolescents and
Given the prevalence of binge drinking and sexual activity among
teens and young adults, and the tendency for these activities to
be combined,150-152 this population is increasingly seen as an
important target for universal prevention. According to the
literature, younger women appear to be less at risk for having an
affected child than older women. This may provide a window of
protection and opportunity for education and identification of
those women who will require more intense interventions. Logical
subject areas within the curriculum to locate awareness-raising
topics include drug/health education, personal development, and
life management programs. Interactive approaches based on the
Social Influence Model have been shown to be the most
promising approaches to general drug education at the secondary
school level.153 Topics for FASD education at this level include
pregnancy planning, resisting pressure to use alcohol or engage in
sexual activity, teratogenicxxv effects of alcohol, early symptoms of
pregnancy, the importance of routine physical exams for sexually
active female adolescents, understanding the needs of those
affected by prenatal alcohol exposure, and problems confronting
parents of affected children.154 Although examples of Canadian
FASD-specific curricula were located,155 no studies on the
effectiveness of introducing curricula in high school were found.
6.5 Multi-Component Strategies
Perhaps the most promising use of awareness-raising campaigns is
in support of broader multi-component campaigns. Multi-component
programs typically aim to shift attitudes and behaviours among
both men and women concerning alcohol use during pregnancy
While brief, motivational
approaches with high-risk
drinkers – a selective
prevention approach – have
been used with good effect at
the college level in the US, the
most promising universal
prevention programs appear
to be those that use an
environmental approach that
engages key stakeholders (i.e.
students, health care providers,
licensed establishments and
the alcohol industry) in
identifying and pursuing
policy-level strategies (e.g.
beverage services) to reduce
Research Update 2005 41
42 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
through a variety of means. Elements include fully available birth control and substance-
specific information routinely provided to men and women (premarital and prenatal) and
from a number of sources (e.g. accompanying marriage licence applications). This is
complemented by prenatal and outreach services; professional training to identify, intervene
with and support those at risk; and accessibility to FASD diagnostic clinics to assess
children prenatally exposed to alcohol.
Multi-component strategies are difficult to implement and challenging to evaluate. One of
the few FASD-related initiatives to be evaluated was the Tuba City program involving an
Aboriginal population in the US. This program used a comprehensive approach to
prevention and intervention that included awareness raising, training and a diagnostic
component. Although the various elements of the initiative were not separately evaluated
and no control group was used, the overall program appeared effective in promoting
referrals and abstinence among pregnant women.157 Further, the work of Astley (2004)
suggested that the various components to the strategies implemented in the State of
Washington over the years together resulted in a decline in prenatal use of alcohol and
FASD between 1993 and 1998.158
6.6 Recommendations and Implications
Priorities for research, programming and policy arising from this review of the evidence in
support of universal prevention measures are:
• Conduct Canadian research on the effectiveness of:
• municipal alcohol policies on preventing alcohol use during pregnancy
• public awareness measures such as media campaigns, mandated warning
signs, and if implemented, warning labels
• school-based FASD curricula
• multi-component community FASD prevention strategies
•Clarify definitions for low, moderate, occasional and frequent drinking in the context
Research Update 2005 43
Policy and Program Implications
•Give attention to social policy that reduces inequity among low-income pregnant
and parenting women.
•Improve the design of public awareness programs to allow rigorous evaluation.
•Evaluate the potential for promoting health as well as harm in public awareness
messages presenting an abstinence-only message.
•Build public awareness initiatives into comprehensive prevention strategies.
•Give increased attention to the issue of problematic alcohol use by adolescent and
young adult women.
of Prenatal Alcohol
Targeted Selective Prevention Messaging . . . . . . . . . .47
Identifying Pregnant Women with Substance Use Problems . . .47
Brief Interventions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .49
Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . .52
What the Studies Say Selective prevention
measures select sub-populations that are seen as being of
higher risk for more targeted attention, in this case, women of
childbearing age who consume alcohol. Selective measures
for this issue include outreach, screening, referral and brief
intervention activities. Although some researchers have
argued for routine alcohol use screening among all women
of childbearing age, the consensus is stronger for routine
alcohol screening of all pregnant women. Many women are
able to stop using alcohol once they know they are pregnant
or when planning pregnancy; for others, simply being asked
screening questions will prompt action. Brief interventions
consisting of one to three sessions by health or social service
practitioners are showing evidence of effectiveness with non-
dependent alcohol-using pregnant women.
Selective prevention interventions are directed to people who are at
greater risk for a particular outcome because they are members of
a subgroup known to be at higher risk than the general population.
Selective prevention for FASD is directed to women of childbearing
age who drink alcohol. These interventions typically involve greater
selection and intensity than universal prevention interventions and
can include outreach, screening, referral and brief intervention
activities with the intent of promoting the health of the mother and
preventing or minimizing harm to the fetus. The selective
prevention measures discussed here include targeted selective
prevention messaging, identifying women with substance use
problems and brief interventions.
In another large US population survey, 60% of women who
reported frequent alcohol consumption (more than 6 drinks a
week) during the three months prior to pregnancy recognition did
not know that they were pregnant until after the fourth week of
gestation. The vast majority of women stopped or significantly cut
back their alcohol consumption when they realized they were
pregnant.160 As noted earlier, Canadian studies have also shown
that young people are more likely to engage in sex without the use
of contraception when they are drinking.161
Binge Drinking – Does
It Link to Unwanted,
Because of the prevalence
of drinking and unintended
pregnancies, there is a risk
that a woman may consume
alcohol before she is aware
that she is pregnant. In the
US, Naimi et al. found that
45% of more than 72,900
women who gave birth from
1996 to 1999 reported their
pregnancy to be unintended
(either unplanned or
unwanted) and that those
who engaged in binge
drinking (5 or more drinks
on an occasion) before
conception (within three
months prior to) were more
likely to have an unintended
that this is a complex issue,
the authors also found that
the more binge drinking
episodes that a woman
engaged in before
conception, the more likely
that the pregnancy was
46 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Research Update 2005 47
7.1 Targeted Selective Prevention Messaging
Given what is at stake, there is an argument for routinely screening all women of
childbearing age for alcohol problems, but lack of training, as well as time and staffing
pressures within the health care system, mean that screening is currently quite
uneven.162 However, these women must be provided information clearly stating that:
being sexually active, being even a moderate alcohol user (e.g. fewer than 7 standard
drinks per week), and not using effective contraception places a woman at risk for
having an alcohol-exposed pregnancy, which, in extreme circumstances, can result in
fetal brain damage and other birth defects.163 Given the prevalence of binge drinking
among adolescent and young adult women, the extent of their sexual activity, and their
tendency to recognize pregnancy later in term,164 it would make sense to target
messages to this population. However, no studies were found that examined messaging
to this population on alcohol use and pregnancy issues. While necessary and likely
sufficient for the vast majority of women of childbearing age who consume alcohol and are
non-dependent, this knowledge is not sufficient for women who are alcohol dependent
and living in difficult circumstances.
7.2 Identifying Pregnant Women with Substance
There is a broad consensus among experts that primary care settings provide an
optimal environment for screening pregnant women for alcohol use as part of routine
prenatal health care.165,166 There are many barriers to the implementation of routine
screening of all pregnant women; however, it is critical that decisions to screen not be
left to individual discretion.167 Some persons may not acknowledge alcohol use problems
due to lack of motivation or fear of discrimination by health care providers, and some
providers feel similarly hesitant in raising the issue. This discomfort for both parties is
best addressed by creating a non-judgmental, respectful environment in which alcohol
screening questions are asked within a general health inquiry and by providing
physicians with more information on available pregnancy outreach and treatment
programs. Screening for impoverished women who are street involved may be more
effective in an outreach environment where there is a health or social work practitioner
on staff whom the women trust.168
Learning about a woman’s alcohol use is as simple as having a
conversation, perhaps within the context of general health and
well-being. An efficient alternative is to use a brief questionnaire.
Brief screening instruments are simple, easy-to-use tools that are
primarily used in health care settings – an obstetric clinic is ideal –
but others in the health and social services can administer them or
help the person to complete the questions.
A limitation of screening tools is the tendency of respondents to
under-report their use of alcohol. To minimize under-reporting, the
T-ACE and TWEAK do not ask women about actual quantities of
alcohol used or about current use. Because the TWEAK and T-ACE
do not ask for quantities and because that is important
information, Hankin and Sokol suggest following up these screens
with women whose responses suggest alcohol problems and, with
sensitivity, ask about current and at-conception amounts of alcohol
Whichever method is used, it is critical that it occur in a supportive
milieu that is sensitive to the circumstances of pregnant women,
particularly substance users. A respectful, non-judgmental
approach permits both open questions and increases the
likelihood of honest responses.175 In a study with British Columbia
women, Ling found that pregnant women’s self-reports of their
substance use were quite accurate (as determined by meconium
testing of the infant) when they were approached in a non-
judgmental way and were given information that would help them
care for themselves and their child.176 Further, repeated screening
(i.e. during each prenatal visit) has been suggested to lead to a
growing rapport and therefore more openness, accuracy and
opportunity for intervention. Some additional time must be found
to raise alcohol use in this context, but it has been argued that it is
an efficient way to address questions or complications that may
otherwise arise later during the pregnancy.177
Biomarkers (e.g. meconium, carbohydrate-deficient transferrin
[CDT] and gamma glutamyl transpeptidase [GGT]) are an
alternative to asking questions about alcohol use or using
questionnaires to screen for alcohol problems. To their advantage,
they can be administered in a (physically) non-intrusive manner
and measure current and recent use rather than historical use
Validated Screening Tools
Two screens designed
specifically for pregnant
women are the TWEAK and
T-ACE. The TWEAK has
been validated in several
including emergency ward
patients of diverse
backgrounds.169-171 Russell et
al. evaluated the
effectiveness of the TWEAK
and T-ACE. They found both
to be highly sensitive in the
detection of risk drinking
during pregnancy. A study
by Flynn et al. found
administration of the TWEAK
in a busy obstetric clinic to
be feasible and acceptable
to women.172 And in a review
of screening instruments,
Chang concluded that the
T-ACE takes only a minute
to administer, and that while
the TWEAK is also useful, it
offers no particular
advantage over the T-ACE.173
48 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Research Update 2005 49
patterns. However, ethical concerns arise regarding the administration of any test that can
be applied without the woman’s knowledge or consent, and this is particularly the case with
the use of bio-markers. For this reason, further research and an associated inclusive social
and legal-ethical policy debate is needed before the routine use of laboratory tests can be
recommended to identify alcohol risk among pregnant women.178-180
Screening for pregnant women who consume alcohol, of course, presupposes that
intervention resources are available to support identified women. Although there are
no empirical data to support this, experts generally agree that resources to care for and
treat pregnant women with substance use issues are quite insufficient in this country.
7.3 Brief Interventions
If, through conversation or completion of a screening questionnaire, it appears that a
pregnant woman may have alcohol use issues, a more complete assessment is in order.
A viable option for persons who are not alcohol dependent and have reasonable social
support is a brief intervention (one to three sessions) conducted by a health care or social
services practitioner.181 In a review of brief interventions, Yahne and Miller182 summarized
the elements of successful interventions, identified by the acronym FRAMES:
• Feedback: Provide clients with personal feedback regarding their individual status.
• Responsibility: Emphasize personal responsibility for change and the individual’s
freedom of choice.
• Advice: Include a clear recommendation or advice on the need for change,
typically in a supportive rather than authoritarian manner.
• Menu: Offer a menu of different strategies for change, providing options from
which clients may choose what seems sensible to them.
• Empathy: Place emphasis on an empathetic, reflective, warm and supportive
practitioner style, which is linked with positive treatment outcomes.
• Self-efficacy: Reinforce self-efficacy – the client’s expectation that she can change.
Insight: Time Is of the Essence
Brief physician-led alcohol-focused interventions – 10 to 15 minutes –following the
FRAMES model have been shown to be effective with various populations.
now good evidence that a brief intervention can be effective for non-dependent women
of childbearing age. Brief interventions have also been shown to reduce alcohol
consumption among pregnant drinkers who were not alcohol dependent.
50 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
In a well-designed experimental study, Manwell et al. tested an intervention for women of
childbearing age who were not seeking treatment. The intervention consisted of two 15-
minute physician-delivered sessions scheduled one month apart (consisting of advice,
education and contracting, using a workbook). Patients received a follow-up phone contact
by a clinic nurse within two weeks of each physician session. The intervention was
conducted by 64 community-based physicians who were trained using role play and
general skills training techniques. The sample consisted of women ages 18 to 40 who
consumed at least 11 drinks a week, 4 drinks per occasion or scored greater than 2 on the
CAGE.xxvi When followed up after 48 months (which is an unusually lengthy duration in the
literature), those receiving the intervention reduced their alcohol intake by 48% on average
(from 14 to 7.5 drinks per week). The number of subjects reporting any binge drinking
declined from 93% to 68%, while the number of binge drinking episodes in the previous
month decreased from five to three.184
Chang et al. tested a two-session intervention with pregnant women that focused on
identifying alcohol use goals during pregnancy and found that the intervention assisted in
the reduction of alcohol use.185 Hankin et al. conducted a randomized controlled trial to
examine the effect of a brief intervention strategy on drinking in subsequent pregnancies.
Upon follow-up, women in the experimental group were found to have consumed slightly
more than half as much as women in the control condition. Women who reported the
heaviest pre-pregnancy drinking showed the largest reduction in drinking following the brief
intensive intervention, and children born to women in the brief intensive intervention groups
showed better growth outcomes at birth.186
Motivational interviewing (MI), as conceived by Miller and Rollnick,187 has shown some
effectiveness as a brief intervention with pregnant women.188 Handmaker et al. tested a
brief MI intervention with a small sample of drinking pregnant women in a prenatal care
setting.189 After an assessment, those in the experimental sample participated in a one-hour
intervention consisting of a discussion of what the woman already knew about the effects
of drinking, feedback on the severity of her drinking, and comments intended to increase
motivation to change. Those in the control condition were given the assessment and mailed
information on potential risks associated with drinking during pregnancy. Women who had
been reaching high blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) before the intervention were found
to be drinking at much lower BAC levels compared with women in the control group.
A large feasibility study by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has shown that a
relatively brief (five session) MI intervention can be successful in effecting change with
higher risk women. This study found that motivational counselling, focusing on both
xxvi. The CAGE is a 4-question questionnaire that screens for alcohol problems, asking whether a person has ever tried to CUT
BACK, been ANNOYED by the criticism of others over their drinking, felt GUILTY about their drinking, or drank first thing
in the morning (EYEOPENER).
Research Update 2005 51
reducing risk drinking and using contraception, is feasible and promising for women
at high risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy.190 The intervention consisted of four
motivational counselling sessions conducted by a mental health clinician and one family-
planning consultation by a family-planning clinician. Discussions in each session were
tailored to each woman’s self-rated readiness to change and interest in discussing alcohol
use or contraception. In brief, the intent was to provide brief advice and counselling for
moderate-to-heavy drinkers to reduce their drinking levels or referral to community
treatment services for alcohol-dependent drinkers.
It was found that the option of having two choices for achieving positive outcomes
appeared to be appealing, supporting the contention that people are more committed
to goals that they establish for themselves. Approximately one in four women chose the
option of effective contraception as their principal step in reducing their risk for an
alcohol-exposed pregnancy; 12% reduced their drinking only; while close to one-third
reported both. Lower risk women (in terms of their scores on an alcohol use
questionnaire) were the most likely to reduce their risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy,
but least likely to do so through reducing their alcohol use (i.e. they tended to do so
through instituting effective contraception use). These encouraging results were
consistent across six community sites in various parts of the US. However, it will be
important to study the model using an experimental design to increase confidence in its
effectiveness, which is the intention of the CDC. A modification of this methodology is
currently being tested with adolescent women; Project Balance (Birth Control and
Alcohol Awareness: Negotiating Choices Effectively) is underway with college women in
the southeast US.191
It appears that any constructive attention to this issue will help non-dependent women
to make changes. The vast majority of women, upon learning they are pregnant or when
planning a pregnancy, are able to stop drinking on their own.192 For others, having the
screening questionnaire administered in a respectful, non-judgmental way seems to raise
awareness sufficiently to instigate change.193 Aside from a basic understanding that non-
dependent drinkers tend to respond better to brief interventions than dependent
persons, a need remains for research on how different women respond to various levels
of intervention. In light of this, Handmaker et al. suggested that providers employ brief
interventions within a stepped care approach for pregnant women with alcohol use
issues.194,195 In this stepped care model, clients are assessed according to level of
motivation, self-efficacy, level of dependence, co-morbidity and sociocultural factors, and
triaged into one of three treatment levels. A guiding principle of this model is the use of the
least intensive (and least expensive) level first and “stepping up” a client if the less
intensive treatment has not been effective.
52 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
It is also important to note that, although a biological effect on fetal development associated
with a father’s drinking has been suggested, its actual presence and role has not been
demonstrated196,197; consequently, the male’s role in the development of birth defects
appears to be primarily through social and psychological influence. However, this influence
appears to be quite strong, with various studies showing drinking by a partner to be
associated with use by the pregnant woman.198 Consequently, although there is no
empirical evidence one way or another, it is reasonable to direct attention to drinking
fathers to enlist them in supporting their partner toward healthy choices.
7.4 Recommendations and Implications
Priorities for research, programming and policy arising from this review of the evidence in
support of selective prevention measures are:
• Conduct Canadian research on:
• the effectiveness of using T-ACE, TWEAK and informal methods of asking
about alcohol use in health care and social service settings to identify
pregnant women who use alcohol
• the feasibility of implementing routine screening of pregnant women for
their use of alcohol in a Canadian jurisdiction and barriers to reporting this
on the perinatal record
• the effectiveness of using brief interventions in health care and social
service settings to reduce alcohol use by pregnant women
• the relationship between partner (male and female) drinking and a woman’s
drinking and the implications for intervening with both partners at pregnancy
Policy and Program Implications
While awaiting the results of Canadian studies, priority should be given to these
• Promote routine universal screening for alcohol use among pregnant women
with relevant health care and social services providers, emphasizing the need to
create comfortable, safe and respectful contexts for screening and education
about alcohol use.
• Promote use of brief interventions using a motivational approach in health care
and social service settings as promising methods to reduce alcohol use by
pregnant women who are not dependent.
of Prenatal Alcohol
Identifying Women Who Benefit from Indicated
Prevention Measures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .55
Barriers to Identifying Pregnant Women with
Significant Substance Use Issues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .56
Outreach . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57
Targeted Indicated Prevention Messaging . . . . . . . . . .58
Prenatal Medical and Social Attention . . . . . . . . . . . .58
Providing Comprehensive and Practical Care . . . . . . . .62
Canadian Models . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .66
Prevention Through Diagnosis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .67
Culturally Appropriate Treatment for Aboriginal Women . .68
Cost-effectiveness of Treatment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .68
Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . .69
54 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
What the Studies Say Indicated prevention measures attempt to
prevent or minimize harm among pregnant women with significant substance use
issues. Women with these issues often have a history of physical or sexual abuse and
experience concurrent mental health problems as well. Consequently, programs that
work best are those that provide respectful, flexible care, offering support in a
number of life areas, including access to child care. Motivational counselling and
intensive case coordination are two modalities that have shown promise in
supporting high-risk women in making healthy decisions concerning contraception
and/or their use of alcohol.
Indicated prevention measures are directed at women who are at high risk for having a
child affected by FASD. This includes alcohol-dependent women of childbearing age,
women who have consumed alcohol during previous pregnancies, and pregnant women
who have delivered an infant with FASD and continue to use alcohol.199 Women who
themselves are affected by FASD may also be at high risk of having a child with FASD.200
This level of prevention includes treatment for alcohol dependence among pregnant women
or women who are likely to become pregnant, support with the many other issues they
typically face, and measures to encourage the prevention of pregnancy.201,202 Reducing
harms arising from continued use by reducing higher risk use, promoting the overall health
of the mother and increasing her capacity to care for her children effectively are also
legitimate aims.203 This section reviews research in the following related areas:
• identifying women who benefit from indicated prevention measures
• barriers to identifying pregnant women with significant substance use issues
• targeted indicated prevention messaging
• prenatal medical and social attention
• management of withdrawal
• treatment for women with significant substance use problems
• treatment for pregnant women with significant substance use problems
• respectful service philosophy
• providing comprehensive and practical care
• interagency collaboration and coordination of services
Research Update 2005 55
•broad and flexible continuum of substance abuse services
•attention to family issues
•continuing or aftercare
•use of motivational counselling approaches
•prevention through diagnosis
•culturally appropriate treatment for Aboriginal women
•cost-effectiveness of treatment
8.1 Identifying Women Who Benefit from Indicated
Women who have been unable to stop consuming alcohol while pregnant on their own or
through a brief intervention may benefit from having access to supportive and intensive
intervention. Although there is some indication that Canadian Aboriginal women may differ
in this respect,204 when women do seek help, those with drinking problems tend to seek out
health and mental health services rather than substance abuse services.205 This is likely
due, in part, to the added stigma experienced by women with substance use problems.
However, when asked about using substance abuse treatment services, women
participating in qualitative research in British Columbia also cited “not knowing what
treatment was available” and “not knowing what treatment would be like” as barriers.206
Women in this target population experience a range of co-existing risk factors. Typically,
they have not fared well with respect to factors that are understood to fundamentally
influence the health of individuals and populations, particularly education, employment
and adequate income.207 Moreover, a high proportion of these women have experienced
physical and sexual violence in their lives. For some, violence starts during pregnancy,
for others its frequency and severity increases during pregnancy.208 For many Aboriginal
mothers, these circumstances are exacerbated by the intergenerational impacts of the
residential school system and other elements of colonial oppression.209 Depression and
anxiety can stem from violence and other seemingly intractable difficulties, but are
worsened among women with little or poor social support. Consequently, assessment
should include an exploration of mental health status, domestic violence issues and other
frequently occurring co-existing risk factors.210
56 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Because age and number of previous children appear to be large factors in determining
the likelihood of a FASD-affected child occurring through a mother’s use of alcohol, some
suggest that the optimal time to identify and intervene is after the first pregnancy.211 With
everything else being equal, mothers who are older, have already had a child and continue
to drink in pregnancy appear to be at higher risk of having a child with FASD than a
younger woman without children. Women in this situation may point to their apparently
healthy child as evidence that their drinking is not a problem and see standard prevention
messages as not credible.212 Nevertheless, a pregnancy will often stimulate an interest in
health-promoting behaviour that a supportive, non-judgmental service provider can
effectively use as a point of engagement.213
8.2 Barriers to Identifying Pregnant Women with Significant
Substance Use Issues
Insight: Unplanned and Unwelcomed…
Many women with substance use issues report that their pregnancies were unplanned
and unwelcome, sometimes occurring as a result of sexual assault.
in these circumstances tend not to seek early prenatal care or substance abuse
services (in the US, it has been estimated that only about 5% to 10% of pregnant
women with substance use problems receive professional treatment).
given by women for not seeking medical assistance or treatment are feelings of shame
and fear of loss of custody of their child.
Many women in this situation are so
overwhelmed with a sense of the inevitability of harm and child custody issues that
they have difficulty taking concerted action. Ironically, punitive interventions that aim
to protect the fetus have the opposite effect, pushing the woman further from needed
supports. Research clearly indicates that fetal protection is best achieved through
maternal protection in the form of therapeutic, non-punitive interventions.
When women seek help from services other than prenatal or substance abuse services,
their substance use problems often go unrecognized by professionals, many of whom lack
knowledge and harbor negative attitudes toward women with substance use problems,
particularly pregnant women. Lack of routine professional training on substance abuse
screening and advice for the prevention of women’s alcohol use during pregnancy continues to
be a barrier. Other barriers that have been variously cited are long waiting lists, limited access
to low-threshold services, lack of access to women-centred treatment for pregnant women with
substance use problems, lack of designated staff, insufficient staff, insufficient referral
protocols, weak referral linkages (staff reluctant to identify unless they can readily provide
help), poor coordination of services, and lack of transportation and child care for clients.220-223
Research Update 2005 57
Barriers are also compounded in “distressed” communities. A qualitative study by
Kowalsky and Verhoef demonstrated the difficulties inherent in living in an isolated
Aboriginal community. They described an unnamed Déné community in northern Canada,
citing a number of barriers for people who have substance use issues, including fear of
stigmatization, lack of awareness of the issues and other social problems in their
community. They noted that substance use problems are embedded in the fabric of these
other social problems and must be addressed within the context of these issues.224
Because of the numerous barriers faced by pregnant women to obtain help for their
drinking, outreach activities are needed to identify and intervene with those unable to quit
drinking on their own, as well as those seeking help from non-substance abuse services.
Clearly, attention to substance use issues by pregnant woman as early as possible is
important. But if individuals are not able or interested in attending to their health issues,
outreach can be effective in initiating this process. Outreach efforts can reduce known
barriers such as fear and low self-esteem, while increasing readiness to address alcohol use
issues, demystifying what is available and what is involved in the various levels of care.225,226
Drop-in centres, community centres and transition houses or shelters for women and
mothers are in a strong position to raise substance use issues with women in a sensitive,
respectful manner. A study of women entering transition houses in British Columbia found
a general reduction in substance use when they were followed up three months after
leaving the house.227 In fact, in Canada, much of the substance abuse “treatment” for
pregnant women that does occur is through these types of services (i.e. outside the formal
treatment sector).228 On-call outreach workers trained in substance abuse counselling
(particularly the Transtheoretical or Stages of Change Model) can extend outreach further
(e.g. to homes, schools and streets). By providing emergency response, counselling and
possibly referral, these workers can increase access to care for pregnant substance-using
women who are harder to reach.229 It has been suggested that outreach work also needs
to involve collaboration with referral sites, education of community agencies and
advertisement of programs.230,231
In a small non-experimental study of women with serious substance use and mental health
issues, Corrarino and colleagues found home visits by nurses to be effective. Ninety
percent of the women in the study entered treatment and all had full-term babies. The
authors suggested that nurses, by fostering trusting non-judgmental relationships, were
able to “push open” the window of opportunity that pregnancy provides to move women to
the point of being ready to change.233
8.4 Targeted Indicated Prevention Messaging
This highest risk population of women needs to receive messages
particularly tailored to their circumstances. Posters and pamphlets
that encourage conversation and questions about alcohol use
during pregnancy and brief, carefully worded remarks need to be
presented in a supportive, non-critical way. The aim of these
messages is to encourage women using alcohol while pregnant to
postpone becoming pregnant or, if pregnant, to quit their use on
their own or to seek further information or help.
It is also important for service providers to correct erroneous
knowledge in this population. Branco and Kaskutas found that
there was generally a lack of clarity on what constituted a standard
drink (e.g. some felt that wine was safer). Further, more frequent
drinkers and those drinking high-alcohol-content beverages tend to
underestimate standard drink consumption.
8.5 Prenatal Medical and Social Attention
Insight: Trust, Respect and Cultural Sensitivity
The foundation of all effective responses to prenatal drinking,
according to the literature, is building a non-judgmental
relationship based on trust, respect and cultural sensitivity.
This relationship in turn needs to serve as the basis of an
accurate and ongoing health and psychosocial assessment as
early in the pregnancy as possible.
When women visit a prenatal provider, they are unlikely to view
substance use as an issue they are ready to work on. Consequently,
the process of engagement, assessing the need for treatment and
making a successful referral requires sensitivity and patience.237
For most women who are concerned about the health of their
unborn child, and who are drinking harmfully, pregnancy provides
a window of opportunity to address their substance use and
related life issues. However, some women may not be ready or
able to reduce or stop drinking or enter substance abuse
treatment. In such situations, engaging and supporting women to
The heaviest drinkers are less
likely to know that cutting back
at any time during pregnancy
can help the fetus.232 Testa and
Reifman suggested that heavy-
drinking women with children
would benefit from a tailored
message that points out “just
because you had a healthy
child the first time doesn’t
mean you will again. In fact,
the research says that the
more children you have the
more likely they’ll be affected if
you continue to drink.”234
Awareness efforts directed to
this population need to
acknowledge the challenge in
making changes, and reinforce
any reduction; they could also
recognize the loneliness of
choosing to abstain.235
It is important to point out
that it is commonly believed
that the most frequent and
heavy substance users will not
alter their use as a result of
messaging alone. However, it is
possible that the messages
may at the very least contribute
to a health-promoting
environment that facilitates
discussion of the issue,
although this has not been
studied to date. Where
possible, basic messages
about the potential harms of
alcohol use during pregnancy
need to lead to discussion and
substance use problems.
58 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Research Update 2005 59
address other important issues in their lives can improve maternal and fetal health
outcomes and may subsequently lead to women reducing or stopping their use of alcohol.
Practical issues such as housing, education, job training, transportation assistance, food
and income support, and help with health care and employment are often seen as higher
priority needs.238,239 It is important to note that with respect to alcohol use, some women will
successfully cut back without help, others will try different ways of reducing harm to their
fetus, such as switching to marijuana, not using on certain days or weeks, eating more,
using prenatal vitamins and getting an increased amount of sleep.240 It is important to
engage and support women so they can make the most informed and healthy choices for
themselves and their unborn child.
Management of Withdrawal
According to the Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) for pregnant substance-using
women prepared by the US Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, detoxification for a
pregnant, alcohol-dependent woman needs to be undertaken in an inpatient setting under
medical supervision that includes collaboration with a prenatal care provider.241 That being
said, physicians associated with Sheway in Vancouver, BC provide withdrawal management
on an outpatient basis where inpatient stay is not realistic. At BC Women’s Hospital, the Fir
Square Combined Maternity Care Unit provides withdrawal management within longer term
care. Mothers are stabilized so their babies have a chance to be born without withdrawal
symptoms. These new mothers stay on the ward and receive life-skills and parenting
training. This program is unique; availability of women-centred detoxification programs
(especially medically managed services for pregnant women) is very limited in Canada, and
particularly so in rural and remote regions.242,243
Benzodiazepines and short-acting barbiturates are often used to reduce alcohol withdrawal
symptoms in the general population. However, because they are teratogenic, some
clinicians avoid their use with pregnant women if at all possible. Benzodiazepines are
used at BC Women’s Hospital in some cases as an alternative to seizures.244 Disulfiram
(Antabuse), which is often used to support abstinence in early recovery from alcohol, is not
appropriate for pregnant women because its use is associated with a number of physical
anomalies in the fetus.245
Treatment for Women with Significant Alcohol Use Problems
The scientific literature on women’s treatment is providing increasing direction to
programmers and policymakers. In 2003, Ashley reviewed 38 studies of women’s
treatment, seven of which were randomized, and identified several components of
treatment that were associated with positive outcomes: child care, prenatal services,
women-only programs, supplemental services and workshops that address women-
focused topics, mental health care and comprehensive care. The
studies found positive associations between these six components
and treatment completion, length of stay, decreased use of
substances, reduced mental health symptoms, improved birth
outcomes, employment, self-reported health status and HIV risk
There is a consensus that studies of treatment effectiveness for
this population need to measure outcomes beyond abstinence
from alcohol. Intermediary measures that account for decreased
drinking and that assess changes in self-efficacy, stress
management and decision making are viewed as critical because
programs showing effect on these measures appear to have a
greater and longer lasting impact on the quality of women’s lives
than programs that demonstrate only short-term abstinence.247
In the most recent review (1999) of the peer-reviewed literature
on substance abuse treatment for pregnant women, Howell et al.
concluded that research on treatment efficacy for pregnant women
was sparse and shared the same design weaknesses as women’s
treatment research generally (e.g. small sample sizes, lack of
adequate comparison groups). However, the literature through the
1990s does allow a conclusion that is supported by programmers:
women who remain in treatment fare better than women who leave
early.248 This was supported by the principal finding from a broad
2000 US government study (US Pregnant and Postpartum Women
and Infants, PPWI), which concluded that after controlling for
other possibilities, the amount of substance abuse programming
(i.e. the number of contact hours with the program) received prior
to delivery was the major factor in the reduction of substance use
among participating women.
According to a 2004 study by Kissin et al., it is important to
engage pregnant women in treatment within the first few days of
contact as it is during this period that many clients drop out.249
Monetary incentives such as vouchers, which have been found to
be effective with other populations, do not appear to increase
retention and attendance among this population.250,251 Of course,
simply accessing appropriate treatment in a timely way is a large
issue for pregnant women, and because readiness might be
affected by waiting, this may also have an impact on retention.252
Most of the peer-reviewed
literature is US-based and
reports on findings from
within the “formal”
substance abuse treatment
sector. Because pregnant
women, for various reasons,
do not access formal
treatment, it is important to
note that much substance
abuse “treatment” in this
country is occurring outside
the traditional specialized
in Canada (many of which
are Health Canada-funded
programs for high-risk
women and children) are
integrating substance abuse
treatment for pregnant
women within a range of
and coordinated services and
within a continuum of
services developed through
This calls for a broader, more
flexible understanding of
what constitutes treatment
and an acknowledgment of
the role of various
community service providers
(e.g. public health, mental
health, social services) in
ameliorating substance use
problems than may be
reflected in the peer-
60 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Research Update 2005 61
It should not be surprising, therefore, that the bulk of the research that has been
conducted on treatment for pregnant women since 1999 focuses on variables that affect
clients’ length of stay in a program. (Within a discussion on client retention, it is again
important to take a broad view of what constitutes treatment. For example, pregnant
women may be too busy and tired to access intensive treatment during pregnancy, but
ready to access outpatient counselling or a low-threshold service.)253
Program factors that have been shown to increase client retention include availability of
child care, single-gender programming, transportation, case management,254 supportive
housing and programs that are well connected with mental health services and family
service providers.255 Client factors that have been associated with program completion
include having previous experience with treatment (personally or through partner’s
experience)256 and having greater substance use and psychosocial problems (decreased
chance of program completion).257 Among women being served by the Toronto community
agency, Breaking the Cycle, the client factors most associated with leaving treatment early
were low education and a primary addiction to crack or cocaine.258
The fact that previous experience with the treatment system is linked to longer stays
suggests that women who have not been in treatment may be fearful of child custody
issues, labelling issues and may fear the unknown, and that providers need to promote
a better understanding of treatment. Alternatively, Knight et al. found that women with a
criminal justice history and deviant friends were more likely to leave early, in spite of the
legal pressure to remain in treatment that some experience.259
Health Canada’s 2001 report
Best Practices: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Effects of
Other Substance Use During Pregnancy
cites findings from the PPWI projects and other
US government granting programs that give guidance on successfully reaching pregnant
substance users and retaining them in care. These themes continue to be supported by US
and Canadian studies and experience.
62 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Insight: Respectful Service Required
With recognition that shame, guilt and mistrust of the systems scrutinizing women who
use alcohol during pregnancy have been identified as barriers in accessing care,
programs have shifted toward an empowering, strengths-based and women-centred
approach. Central to this approach is an openness for allowing women to set goals for
improving their health that may not give immediate priority to substance use issues,
and when they do, accommodating goals of reduced use rather than immediate
Breaking the Cycle in Toronto,
Food for Thought in Saskatoon,
various First Steps programs in Alberta, such as the Catholic Social Services program
and Sheway in Vancouver,
are Canadian programs that exemplify this
approach. These programs employ a non-judgmental harm reduction approach in their
work with substance-using pregnant women experiencing very significant challenges.
8.6 Providing Comprehensive and Practical Care
Of the various services needed by women who consume alcohol while pregnant, treatment
for substance use problems is often seen as having the most formidable barriers, so formal
addiction treatment programs often engage women through other avenues. This has the
effect of reducing related harms to the mother and unborn child while increasing the
likelihood that formal substance abuse treatment will be considered. Noting this, programs
strive to combine alcohol and drug treatment with other services, such as prenatal care,
other medical care, parenting education, transportation to appointments, family-planning
services, assistance to access child care, nutritional support, advocacy on housing needs,
and counselling on violence and relationship issues.262-269 Women often indicate that child
care is the most crucial element in a comprehensive program, and there is strong evidence
that women who live with their children during treatment remain in treatment longer than
women who do not.270
Women who participate in these programs have been shown to lower their stress and stabilize
their family situations,271 while their children show significantly lower infant mortality, higher
birthweight and are more likely to be full-term babies.272 In some cases, comprehensive
programming has been organized into a “one-stop” multidisciplinary clinic setting, such as
that provided by Breaking the Cycle (Toronto) and Sheway (Vancouver) programs. Conversely,
Research Update 2005 63
some programs for pregnant women provide far fewer services and seem to focus almost
exclusively on pregnancy in much the same way that traditional substance abuse programs
treat “the addiction.” These programs fail to provide the vast array of services necessary for
recovery. Not surprisingly, although such programs demonstrate improved birth outcomes,
overall success rates appear to be lower and less comprehensive.273
Interagency Collaboration and Coordination of Services
Given the range of health, social and practical services important to a comprehensive
service, coordination and collaboration between services is crucial. The collaborative
linkages established with a variety of community-based medical, mental health and social
services; literacy programs; vocational training and job placement; children’s assessment
services; and family court and child welfare systems were identified as a major strength of
35 programs supported by the US government’s Pregnant and Postpartum Women’s (PPW)
programs. Perhaps the most critical area of collaboration is between the child welfare and
substance abuse treatment domains.274
Insight: Coordinating Services in Smaller Communities
The Maxine Wright Centre in Surrey, BC, is an example of a Canadian program that has
been established with a clear aim of coordinating services for pregnant women with
substance use issues. The goal of its high-risk pregnancy and early parenting program
is to coordinate and provide pre- and postnatal care to women who are least likely to
access traditional medical resources and to coordinate and provide services to their
young children. The program has been developed on the basis of a review of the
literature and community consultations and is currently under evaluation.
It is in
this way that communities that do not necessarily have the numbers to support a
one-stop centre can provide comprehensive care.
A Broad and Flexible Continuum of Substance Abuse Services
To address the considerable challenges in supporting pregnant women to enter, re-enter
and complete substance abuse treatment, a broad menu of services – including outreach,
case management, pretreatment programming, harm reduction programming, medical
detoxification, short-term intensive programs (day and residential), as well as sober housing
and aftercare – is advocated.276,277 Further, flexibility in providing access and in
accommodating absences while in treatment has been found to be critical for enhancing
retention of the pregnant and parenting women receiving care. The process through
treatment for pregnant and parenting women is not necessarily orderly, but more often
64 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
takes a complicated cycle of entering treatment, trying different types of treatment, relapse,
reunifying with children, completing treatment and maintaining sobriety. Support in the
postnatal period for new mothers and their infants can be effective in reaching mothers
with substance use problems to support ongoing change and self-efficacy.
Case Coordination or Management
Case coordination, from a broad, client-centred approach, is repeatedly described as a
key component of an alcohol and drug system of care responsive to the needs of pregnant
women. Case management services that include home visits, telephone counselling,
transportation and advocacy with other professionals by members of a multidisciplinary
team significantly contribute to retention in treatment.278
A well-designed evaluation of the Seattle Birth to Three Program illustrates the value of an
intensive case coordination approach.279 Using a random control study design, the program
studied the effectiveness of intensive, long-term case coordination using para-professional
“advocates.” The advocates did not provide direct services, such as substance abuse
treatment or child care, but facilitated the women’s connection with these services in the
community through regular and as-needed home visits and active contact with the extended
family. The program also gave attention to family planning as an option for preventing FASD.
This powerful intervention supported the women in making and sustaining positive lifestyle
changes, with half of them entering treatment and three-quarters following a reliable family-
planning method upon completion of the three-year intervention.280
In a follow-up of participants two years after completion of the intervention, investigators
found that these seriously marginized women were generally managing to sustain their
changes, even though the challenges they faced were daunting.281 Because this post-
program study did not use a comparison group, it is not so clear that the intervention is
responsible for observed changes; however, given the massive challenge involved with
pulling oneself out of the intergenerational cycle of deprivation that many of the women
faced, these findings are nevertheless very important. Manitoba’s Stop FASxxxi programs
and the First Steps programs in Albertaxxxii are replicates of this model.
Attention to Family Issues
Programs that integrate women, children and partners into their care have often been
found to improve treatment outcomes for women in the perinatal period. An almost
universal finding is that women are often unwilling or unable to separate themselves from
their caregiver role to attend to their treatment needs. Many programs have found that even
Research Update 2005 65
when partner relationships are in turmoil, a primary task of this period is decision making
around disconnecting or reuniting, and program support through this is important.282 There
is a continuing need for attention to child care and mothering issues in the formal addiction
The literature on continuing care and aftercare for women, particularly pregnant women,
continues to be limited. However, aftercare makes intuitive sense, considering the vast
number of issues and lifestyle changes that women typically need to work through following
a period of treatment. These can include development of new social support networks,
dealing with new roles in the family, relationship issues, learning to anticipate events that
precipitate drinking, dealing with new emotions and learning to trust others. Continuing
care programs can take various forms, including group sessions, individual counselling
and phone support. A BC Women’s Hospital aftercare pilot project that employed these
methods and focused on smoking cessation, trauma counselling, vocational training and
parenting skills found that participants valued these services and improved their health
in a number of ways.283
Use of Motivational Counselling Approaches
Motivational approaches, which were shown to be effective as brief interventions with non-
dependent women in the previous section, can be effective with dependent women in the
context of more extensive interventions. Community parent, child and family agencies often
see women who are not considering changes in their substance use and find approaches
based on motivational principles to be useful.
The use of motivational principles to help women with significant substance use issues has
been described in a Canadian training manual for providers working with pregnant women
who use alcohol that was prepared by AWARE (Action on Women’s Addictions – Research
and Education),xxxiii a women’s health research program, and Breaking the Cycle,xxxiv a
one-stop service for high-risk mothers and their young children.284 Using motivational
counselling in the context of stages of change theory (the Transtheoretical Model of
Behaviour Change), agencies can work with a woman to increase her “readiness” to
address substance use. This means working with a woman to help her move from the
point of not considering changes in this area of her life (precontemplation) to the point of
considering possibilities (contemplation), preparing to act (preparation), ultimately acting on
(action), and ideally, sustaining the changes (maintenance).285,286 The process rests on the
66 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
assumption that everyone has strengths that can be brought out to address problems and
that a person's motivation to do so is not fixed – it can shift with events (e.g. pregnancy or
an accident) or through contact with another person. This is not usually a short process for
women with significant alcohol use issues that co-exist with other serious issues.
Although a motivational intervention in a community agency may aim to bring a person to
the point where she will accept a referral to a formal treatment service, in many cases,
treatment is occurring in these community agencies – that is, counsellors are supporting
women through all these stages of change and helping her to address relapses that are
part of the process of change. Motivational approaches are consistent with women-centred
approaches that foster autonomy and self-efficacy among pregnant women.287
8.7 Canadian Models
Even though they were cited to illustrate one or another of the elements of good practice,
the Canadian programs identified in the above discussion generally encompass all of these
elements; in fact, it is the integration of these multifaceted elements into program structure
that results in successful engagement and opportunities for support.288 The two Canadian
programs working with high-risk pregnant women that are best documented are Sheway
and Breaking the Cycle. The Sheway program, located in the Downtown Eastside of
Vancouver, takes a women-centred, harm reduction, culturally focused approach to
working with pregnant women with substance use problems and supporting mothers
and their children until the children are 18 months of age. An evaluation of the program
published in 2000 found the following key components contributed to Sheway’s success:289
• a service philosophy respectful and supportive of women’s self-determination in
making needed change
• the provision of practical supports, such as hot meals and vitamins, advocacy
on housing and other basic needs, bus tickets, clothing and baby equipment
• outreach to engage women in prenatal care and to assist them in connecting
with other needed services
• the full range of assistance found in a multidisciplinary team of professionals
in an accessible drop-in setting
• leisure and creative programming for women and their families
• an active approach in assisting women to face and meet child protection
standards of care
Research Update 2005 67
Breaking the Cycle (BTC) in Toronto uses a one-stop service delivery model to serve “high-
risk drug-involved pregnant women and families who have a history of family/partner abuse,
few supports and experience chaotic, unstable and often violent environments.”290 A 2002
evaluation report concluded that BTC services are:
“contributing to fewer birth complications, decreased postnatal diagnoses and
shorter hospital lengths of stay. In addition, BTC children had better maternal
health ratings, fewer health concerns, fewer separations from their mothers and
fewer developmental concerns as expressed by mothers…. Mothers reported
significant knowledge, attitudinal and behaviour changes related to parenting
skills, which affect the mother–infant attachment…. Mothers reported less use
of inappropriate discipline, more mother–child activities, and increased positive
feelings about parenting…. BTC children made substantial growth during the
evaluation periods and continued developmentally-appropriate progress could
8.8 Prevention Through Diagnosis
Mothers of children with FASD have numerous needs that must be addressed to prevent
future prenatal alcohol exposure in subsequent pregnancies.292 The diagnosis of FASD in
children, young people and adults should be seen as a crucial form of prevention in that
mothers who have had an affected child are at high risk to have another. Moreover, if the
multiple needs of the affected child are not adequately addressed, she may one day be at
risk of having a child with FASD. Astley et al. reported on the preventative potential of FASD
diagnostic clinics in Washington State. Mothers of diagnosed children had “very harsh
profiles,” with 95% having been physically or sexually abused, and most having one or
more mental health problems. In a number of cases, these women had made constructive
changes in their lives and the FASD diagnosis appeared to be an instigating factor. Women
most likely to stop their alcohol use were those receiving mental health care, those
receiving social support, those with higher incomes and those with higher IQs.293,294
Significant efforts have been made in Canada to educate and provide guidance to
physicians in diagnosing FASD.295,296
Highlighting the intergenerational aspect of FASD, some researchers have posited that
pregnant women who drink too much may, in some cases, be affected by FASD
themselves.297 There is a growing consensus that tailored substance abuse treatment for
persons affected by FASD is necessary, and clinical experience is being gained in this area;
however, there is currently no empirical knowledge to guide programming.298
68 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
8.9 Culturally Appropriate Treatment for Aboriginal Womenxxxv
Although several studies have suggested that FASD is more prevalent among Aboriginal
people than non-Aboriginals, the picture is not complete as there is little information about
the prevalence of FASD in the general Canadian population.299 As Tait (2003) observed,
alcohol use problems are an issue that need to be understood as a problem of certain
individuals and sub-populations, rather than a problem of all Aboriginal people.300
In 2001, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada prepared a policy
statement to guide professionals in addressing Aboriginal health concerns, including
FASD.301 The Aboriginal Healing Foundation (2003) also suggested best practices from an
Aboriginal perspective, proposing alternative practices that are aligned with the culture and
that fit with the reality in which Aboriginal peoples live in Canada. The report gives attention
to the role of residential schooling and concludes that widespread use of alcohol and other
substances among residential school survivors can be attributed to the residential school
experience for many.302 Aboriginal women participating in consultations leading to the
Substance Use and Pregnancy: Conceiving Women in the Policy-development
, spoke of the tremendous importance of cultural (re)connection as a means of
facilitating healing, supporting recovery and preventing future problems.303
Holistic, community-wide interventions that see other persons in the community, as well
as organizations such as Native Friendship Centres, as part of an extended family are
favoured by Aboriginal communities.304 Programs that incorporate outreach, identification,
referral and appropriate support into an overall preventive and early intervention strategy
appear to make the most sense. Masis and May tested this approach and concluded that
the high rate of client acceptance of referral was due to the initiative being presented as a
prevention program rather than a social work or alcoholism program and because it was
hospital-based with trusted professionals involved. Because there was no control group
used in this design, findings need to be viewed as suggestive.305
8.10 Cost-effectiveness of Treatment
The 2002 lifetime costs of care for a person with FAS were estimated to be US $2 million.306
In years ahead, it will be important for researchers in this field to determine the extent to
which various interventions can be expected to help avoid these enormous costs. While
several authors have examined cost-effectiveness of drug treatment and found benefits,
no cost-effectiveness study specific to treatment for pregnant women with alcohol use
problems was found.307,308 Ashley, in a discussion on cost-effectiveness in women’s
xxxv. Cultural considerations encompass a wide range of issues, including sexual orientation, and it is critical that all
programming for pregnant women with substance use issues, not just Aboriginal programming, be culturally sensitive.
Research Update 2005 69
treatment that applies to pregnant women’s treatment, noted the need for better controlled
studies on which to make reliable comparisons.309 Research on the Sheway program
estimated that it cost $8,000 per family per year for the Sheway program’s comprehensive
care and $49,000 per year for a special needs foster placement.310 Ultimately, however, the
availability of empirically supported treatment for pregnant women is more than an issue of
cost-effectiveness. It has been suggested that the lack of empirically based treatment for
pregnant women is one of the most important social justice issues in US medicine and thus
should not be judged solely on the basis of whether it saves money.311
8.11 Recommendations and Implications
Priorities for research, programming and policy arising from this review of the evidence in
support of indicated prevention measures are:
• Conduct Canadian research on the effectiveness of gender-specific and -sensitive
treatment in comparison to mixed gender treatment.
• Evaluate the effectiveness of motivational interviewing in a Canadian setting in
supporting high-risk women to choose contraception and/or reduce or stop use
of alcohol to prevent an alcohol-exposed child.
• Conduct a scientific (i.e. with control or comparison group) evaluation of a
Canadian one-stop service for high-risk women and their children and of
comprehensive care provided by perinatal service networks in smaller
communities (where one-stop services are not feasible).
• Conduct a scientific evaluation and cost-effectiveness study of a Canadian
intensive case management program as implemented in the one-stop or birth-to-
three models of programming.
• Conduct research into the effectiveness of tailoring substance abuse treatment
for individuals affected by FASD.
70 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
Policy and Program Implications
While awaiting the results of Canadian studies, priority should be given to these promising
• Promote the development of respectful, flexible, comprehensive and harm-
reduction-oriented programming for pregnant women with substance use issues.
• Promote the one-stop model of service delivery for high-risk pregnant women and
their young families and of comprehensive care provided by perinatal service
networks in smaller communities (where one-stop services are not feasible).
• Promote outreach and intensive case coordination for moderate- and high-risk
pregnant women and mothers.
• Greatly expand the capacity of the Canadian health care system to identify and
diagnose individuals who may have FAS and other alcohol-related birth defects
and developmental disabilities.
• Promote easily accessible and free emergency contraception for all women.
• Make funding available to incorporate child care and children’s programming
into women’s substance abuse treatment services.
• Promote policies that require priority admission for pregnant women to
substance abuse treatment.
Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . .74
72 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
What the Studies Say As new evidence of effective practices arises,
there is a need to transfer the new knowledge from researchers to practitioners
(researchers, in turn benefit from networking with practitioners and parents in this
field). Best practice and clinical guidelines can support the uptake of new practices,
as can training. There is very little scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of FASD-
related guidelines or training initiatives. At times, there are other barriers to the
adoption of new practices, and a “workforce development” approach that assesses
the picture from a broader perspective is necessary.
The implementation of evidence-based practices holds large implications for professional
development. With respect to identifying and intervening with pregnant women with
substance use issues, physicians and other health care professionals, such as nurses and
midwives, hold an important position.312 Routine screening of pregnant women for alcohol
use problems is a recommended practice, yet this has not been achieved in Canada.
A recent study reporting a 41% response rate found that 94% of a national sample of
Canadian health providers (pediatricians, psychiatrists, obstetricians and gynecologists,
midwives and family physicians) asked pregnant women about their alcohol use, but only
62% report using a standardized screening tool.313 This reinforces findings from other
physician surveys that indicate that screening is not fully routine and that validated
screening tools are much underused.314,315 Authors of the national study suggested that
those least likely to be identified include women over age 35, social drinkers, women who
are highly educated, women with a history of sexual or emotional abuse, and women of
high socio-economic status.316
According to the findings of the Canadian physician surveys, efforts should be directed
toward improving professional preparedness to care for alcohol dependent/abusing
pregnant women and FAS-affected individuals, as less than 60% of respondents felt
prepared to do so. Lack of specific preparation was viewed as the chief barrier with
journals, medical school curricula, continuing medical education (CME) and parents of
affected children, identified (in descending order) as preferred channels for learning.317
Professional policy statements and practice guidelines are important vehicles for
professional development. A landmark guide for Canadian health care professionals on
this issue was the
Joint Statement: Prevention of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal
Alcohol Effects (FAE)
in Canada, led by the Canadian Paediatric Society, and signed by
19 organizations.318 In 2002, the Canadian Paediatric Society also published a position
statement that provides guidance on the identification, prevention and management of
FASD to pediatricians. While both of these publications were widely circulated, neither
has been evaluated for their impact.
Research Update 2005 73
Generally, practice guidelines are considered necessary but not sufficient for changing
practice. Training is often required. The Ontario Best Start program has given attention
to physician training with the development of a training program and planning guide for
training local physicians. Handmaker et al. (1999b) used a controlled study design to test
the effectiveness of a 20-minute training videotape focusing on motivational interviewing
with a small sample of obstetric care physicians.319 Those in the experimental group
showed greater empathy and were more effective in minimizing patient defensiveness
and supporting women’s beliefs in their ability to change.
The medical, child welfare, women’s services and substance abuse treatment systems
tend to have differing agendas and understanding of issues (e.g. reporting requirements
regarding suspected child abuse and child custody, confidentiality, expectations regarding
recovery from a substance use problem, and the most effective methods for ensuring a
healthy outcome for mother and child). Cross or joint training of these professionals would
allow for a broader perspective and lead to critically important collaboration between the
sectors. An example of a joint training approach is a program funded by Health Canada
and piloted by Breaking the Cycle and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, which
trains prenatal and child services practitioners together, using a motivational, stages of
change model for working with both pregnant women and affected children and families.320
Other practitioners, including social workers and human service workers, have important
opportunities to identify women at risk. In their qualitative research concerning barriers to
treatment facing women in British Columbia, Poole and Isaac found that supportive
professionals from a wide range of services, including justice, violence, health and housing,
proved helpful to women in obtaining treatment.321
As has been discussed in this review, diagnosis of FASD is an important way to prevent
future cases of FASD. Significant joint US–Canada effort has resulted in the development of
the first Canadian guidelines for the diagnosis of FAS and related disabilities.322 These
guidelines reflect a harmonizing of Institute of Medicine diagnostic criteria and the Four
Digit Diagnostic Code. Those involved in the preparation suggest that these form the basis
of physician training.
74 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
9.1 Recommendations and Implications
Priorities for research, programming and policy arising from this review of the evidence in
support of training and professional development are:
• Conduct Canadian research into the extent to which disseminating practice
guidelines to health care and social service practitioners increases the adoption
of recommended practices.
•Conduct Canadian research into the extent to which providing training to health
care and social service practitioners on practice guidelines results in the adoption
of recommended practices.
•Identify barriers (beyond awareness and training) to the adoption of recommended
practices concerning prenatal alcohol use in health care and social service settings.
Policy and Program Implications
While awaiting the results of Canadian studies, priority should be given to these promising
•Develop a national workforce development strategy that recognizes the range of
barriers that may prevent or inhibit the adoption of recommended practices
concerning use of alcohol by pregnant women in the health care and social
services fields, including the substance abuse treatment sector.
•Within a national workforce development strategy on this issue, prepare a national
training strategy that takes advantage of regional expertise and minimizes
10 Policy and Legal
Recommendations and Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . .78
76 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
What the Studies Say Although it has not been demonstrated
empirically and would be difficult to do so, there is good reason to believe that
social policy that aims to reduce inequity and poverty in Canada would contribute
to reduced alcohol use problems among pregnant women. More specific to this
issue, social and organizational policies that serve to increase access, reduce stigma
and promote fetal protection through maternal protection in the form of therapeutic,
non-punitive interventions have strong support in the literature.
As a population, women in their childbearing years, particularly younger women, are among
the poorest in the country. In 2000, the National Council on Welfare estimated that young
women between 18 and 24 years of age have a poverty rate of 24.9% (18.5% for women
between 25 and 34 years of age). Overall, single mothers and their children fare the worst.
The poverty rate for families led by a single mother under 25 years of age was an
“abysmal” 85.4%.323 Women of all socio-economic groups use substances during
pregnancy; however, poverty is an aggravating factor that greatly decreases a woman’s
likelihood of accessing adequate care. Government social policy that reduces the poverty
rate among young, single mothers would undoubtedly serve to address substance use
problems among pregnant women.324
Pregnant substance-using women have been more profoundly impacted by alcohol- and
drug-related policies and sanctions than any other population group requiring substance
abuse treatment. These policies include the historical emphasis on treatment models for
men and co-educational treatment as the norm; lack of funding and other mechanisms to
provide child care for those attending specialized substance abuse treatment; and civil and
criminal sanctions for pregnant substance-using women.
A striking example of policy affecting women with substance use problems in Canada was
the issue of mandatory treatment highlighted with the case of Ms. G.xxxvi There are a host of
arguments against mandatory treatment and/or the involvement of the criminal justice
system as mechanisms to prevent substance use during pregnancy, and in favour of
providing comprehensive care that addresses a range of health and social issues as most
likely to lead to the best outcome for the mother and unborn child. The most obvious and
serious consequence of a punitive approach is that it will deter women from accessing
needed services or from being able to discuss their substance use with health care
professionals, leading to poorer outcomes for mothers and children.325,326
xxxvi. In 1996, a landmark Canadian legal judgment was made in which a young, pregnant Aboriginal woman with a six-year
history of solvent abuse was ordered by a Winnipeg judge to enter a mandatory treatment program; Canadian higher
courts ultimately ruled against mandatory treatment of pregnant women.
Research Update 2005 77
This review has found that being able to have children accompany a mother in treatment
is one of the most important ways to help her complete the process. Fear of losing their
children creates a substantial barrier to women in need of treatment. In Canada,
apprehension of children due to parental substance use occurs in those situations in which
parental substance use is assessed to have an impact on parenting and on the child’s well-
being. There is no question that the best outcome is for children to be parented by their
mothers, but it is also clear that parental substance misuse can have an impact on
parenting behaviours and ultimately on child development. There is also no question that
systemic supports to support the mother and infant/child safely in all circumstances and
levels of “risk” to the child are inadequate. This does not mean that these women are
“bad mothers,” but that because they did not experience relationships and environments
that included safety, consistency, structure and responsiveness, they have adapted
(or maladapted) in various ways (including substance use). They experience difficulties in
parenting (not only because of their substance use, but also because of all the co-existing
factors related to their substance use).
Clearly, the needs of women with significant substance use problems are multiple and
complex. Increasingly, child welfare and substance abuse treatment providers in Canada
are seeking a shared perspective on these issues; however, the capacity of systems to
support these families remains woefully inadequate. Few programs exist where women
can take their children to treatment, and women who wish to go to treatment without their
children obtain little support for finding safe, temporary care for their children.327 In
addition, child welfare agencies and related systems providers do not have the resources to
adequately support the maintenance of children in their families with immediate access to
the various services they may need (i.e. formal addiction treatment sector, with child care,
for those who are using substances; women-centred services to address related trauma
and mental health problems; safe and stable housing; and intensive supports for parenting
and child development).328
Rutman et al., in a key Canadian policy discussion document,
Substance Use and
Pregnancy: Conceiving Women in the Policy-making Process
, suggested that this complex
issue calls for policy integration between those advocating for affected children and those
advocating on behalf of women with substance use issues. The authors further called for
policy approaches that recognize and address the complexities of the lives of many women
who are pregnant and using substances. Based on broad consultation, they call for policy
shifts in the following directions:
78 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
• from a moralizing medical model to a harm reduction/health promotion
• from a child welfare mandate as protection-focused to one that emphasizes
• from viewing child apprehension as the failure on the mother’s part to failure of
the system/community to provide what is needed329
A shift of policies in this direction can be argued from a human rights perspective and
make sound economic sense as well.
10.1 Recommendations and Implications
Priorities for research and policy arising from this review of the evidence in relation to policy
and legal issues are:
•Explore the links between socio-economic status and alcohol use during pregnancy
in a Canadian context.
•Conduct Canadian research into the value of a policy and campaign to reduce
drinking-during-pregnancy stigma among practitioners in the health care or social
•Conduct Canadian research into the extent to which substance abuse treatment
and rehabilitation services in Canada that serve women have in place appropriate
policies, program elements and linkages to other key sectors, such as prenatal care
and child welfare services, in order to provide appropriate care for pregnant women
Policy and Program Implications
While awaiting the results of Canadian studies, priority should be given to these promising
•Implement models of child welfare, through amendments to provincial/territorial
child welfare legislation, which give preference to supporting mothers as the best
means of protecting the child.
•Increase funding to child welfare agencies and related systems providers to support
the maintenance of children in their families with adequate and immediate access
to the formal addiction treatment sector (with child care) for those who are using
Research Update 2005 79
substances, for immediate access to women-centred services to address related
trauma and mental health problems, for access to safe and stable housing, and
for intensive supports for parenting and child development.
•Increase resources available to service providers of high-risk pregnant women
(beyond what is typically short-term funding) to increase access, level of care
and evaluation research across Canada.
•Develop, disseminate and provide orientation on evidence-based model policies
and protocols with organizations serving high-risk pregnant women.
82 Alcohol Use and Pregnancy: An Important Canadian Public Health and Social Issue
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