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Moderate Drinking During Pregnancy May Not Harm Baby's Neurodevelopment

Update Date: Jun 17, 2013 08:39 PM EDT

Drinking during pregnancy has been linked to numerous harmful effects for the baby. Children of mothers who drink regularly during pregnancy often develop fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a condition that can lead to stunted growth and mental retardation.  Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can also cause the baby to have birth defects, learning and behavioral problems and be born preterm or at a low birth weight.

However, researchers are now finding more evidence that light or moderate drinking during pregnancy does not harm the development of unborn babies. A new study, published in the British Medical Journal, reveals that moderate drinking, or having three to seven glasses of alcohol a week, does not seem to harm fetal neurodevelopment.

The study involved nearly 7,000 ten-year-olds who were part of the von Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which has been tracking the long term health of around 14,000 children born between 1991 and 1992 to women who live in the former Avon region of the UK.

Children whose mothers' alcohol consumption during 18 weeks of pregnancy and four years after pregnancy was known, underwent a 20 minute balance assessment when they reached the age of 10. The assessment included dynamic balance (walking on a beam); and static balance (heel to toe balance on a beam, standing on one leg for 20 seconds) with eyes open and then again with eyes closed. Researchers also looked at alcohol consumption among fathers.

While 70 percent of the mothers in the study had consumed no alcohol during pregnancy, one in four mothers drank between one and two (low consumption) and three and seven (moderate consumption) glasses of alcohol a week. About 4.5 percent of mothers drank seven or more glasses of alcohol a week.

Four years after the pregnancy, more than 28 percent of the women were not drinking any alcohol and over half were drinking at least three glasses of alcohol a week. Researchers noted that mothers who drank more, but who were not binge drinkers, were on average better off and older.  However, mothers who binge drank were less well off and younger.

The findings revealed higher total alcohol consumption before and after pregnancy by the mothers, as well as higher consumption by the dad during the first three months of pregnancy, were associated with better performance by the children, particularly static balance.

Researchers also assessed the genetic predisposition to low levels of alcohol consumption in 4,335 women by blood test. They explained that if the "beneficial" effects of higher parental alcohol consumption on children's balance were true, those whose mothers had the "low alcohol" gene would be expected to have poorer balance.

However, researchers found no evidence that children of women with the "low alcohol" gene were less able to balance than those whose mothers did not have the genes. 

Researchers found that overall, after accounting for influential factors, such as age, smoking, and previous motherhood, the findings suggest that low to moderate alcohol consumption did not seem to interfere with a child's ability to balance for any of the three components assessed.

However, researchers noted that social advantage might be a factor, as more affluent and more educated mothers-to-be tend to drink more than women who were less well off.

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