Alcohol use before and during pregnancy is 'prevalent and socially pervasive' in Ireland, according to an international study.

The research was based on three existing population-based studies in Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand and found higher levels of alcohol consumption in Ireland before and during pregnancy than in the other three countries.

Ireland has the highest prevalence of any alcohol consumption pre-pregnancy at 90% and during pregnancy at 82%.

The research, published in the BMJ Open, also found Ireland has the highest reported binge alcohol consumption before - 59% - and during - 45% - pregnancy.

The Irish element of the research, assessed by experts in University College Cork, found expectant mothers in Ireland were significantly more likely to be drinkers if they were also smokers. 

Researchers described the widespread consumption of even low levels of alcohol during pregnancy as a "significant public health concern".

The study had a large sample size of almost 18,000 women and looked at the drinking patterns of Irish women as assessed in two previous Irish studies and one international study.

It found drinking during pregnancy was commonplace in all four countries, ranging from 20% to 80% in Ireland and from 40% upwards in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

The amount of alcohol consumed dropped substantially for all countries in the second trimester, along with the level of binge drinking.

The research found that non-white women were less likely to drink, along with younger women, those who were more highly educated, obese or already had children.

Researchers said the findings show there is low adherence to alcohol guidelines advising complete abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy in Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines in the UK, which advises consumption of no more than one to two units once or twice a week.

Although most women who drink during pregnancy do so at low levels, those who drink heavily are putting their unborn baby at risk of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which affects their physical and mental development.

Consultant Obstetrician and Gynecologist at the National Maternity Hospital Dr Peter Boylan said he agreed with the findings and said any excessive amount of alcohol use, or binge drinking, is a concern.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, he said Ireland has a well-known dysfunctional relationship with alcohol so "it’s no surprise the same thing extends into pregnancy".

However, Dr Boylan said there is no evidence that a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy is harmful, but it is important to get the balance right and reiterated that binge drinking while pregnant is very concerning.

He said: "The evidence from international studies is that a small amount of alcohol, maybe one or two units a week, does not seem to do any harm at all."

He said the Government has a role to play in the restriction of the easy availability of alcohol and the association with sporting events and the glamorisation of alcohol consumption, and said education and the restriction of cheap alcohol sales is the way to go.