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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Factors influencing women’s decisions to drink alcohol during pregnancy: findings of a qualitative study with implications for health communication

Carla S Meurk1*, Alex Broom2, Jon Adams3, Wayne Hall4 and Jayne Lucke5

Author Affiliations

1 Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Queensland, UQ Centre for Clinical Research, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Site, Herston, Queensland 4029, Australia

2 Sociology, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, The University of Queensland, School of Social Science, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia

3 Public Health, National Health and Medical Research Council Career Development Fellow, University of Technology Sydney, Faculty of Health, PO Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007, Australia

4 Australia Fellow, The University of Queensland, UQ Centre for Clinical Research, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Site, Herston 4029, Queensland

5 Principal Research Fellow, The University of Queensland, UQ Centre for Clinical Research, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Site, Herston 4029, Queensland

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BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2014, 14:246  doi:10.1186/1471-2393-14-246

Published: 24 July 2014

Abstract

Background

Despite Australian guidelines advising abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy, a relatively high number of Australian women continue to drink alcohol while pregnant. While some call for greater advocacy of the need for abstinence, others have expressed concern that abstinence messages may be harmful to pregnant women and their unborn babies due to the anxiety they could provoke. We present findings on women's deliberations over drinking alcohol during pregnancy, particularly their emotional dimensions, to inform debates about public health messages and practitioner-patient discussions regarding alcohol use during pregnancy.

Methods

Semi-structured face-to-face interviews were conducted with 40 women in their homes. Our sample comprised women aged 34–39, drawn from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, living in the Greater Brisbane Area who were pregnant, or had recently given birth, in 2009. An inductive qualitative framework analysis approach was used to identify and interpret themes explaining why pregnant women choose to drink or not.

Results

Women generally described drinking small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy as being a low risk activity and talked about the importance of alcohol to their social lives as a reason for continuing to drink or finding abstinence a burden; sensitisation to the judgements of others was not widespread. Women predominantly assessed the risk of their drinking in terms of the kinds of alcoholic beverages consumed rather than alcohol content. In reflecting on the advice they recalled receiving, women described their healthcare practitioners as being relaxed about the risks of alcohol consumption.

Conclusions

The significance of alcohol to women’s identity appeared to be an important reason for continued alcohol use during pregnancy among otherwise risk averse women. Anxiety about alcohol consumption during pregnancy was not widespread. However, obstetricians were an important mediator of this. Health messages that dispel the notion that wine is a “healthy” choice of alcoholic beverage, that provide women with strategies to help them avoid drinking, that advise the broader public not to pressure women to drink if they do not want to, and educate women about the effects of ethanol on maternal and fetal bodies, should be considered.

Keywords:
Pregnancy; Alcohol; Qualitative research; Risk; Consumption; Patient-practitioner communication; Public health promotion