Drinking caffeine while pregnant can lead to brain changes, behavioral issues in children

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The growing list of things women are being advised to avoid during pregnancy is getting a little longer. Although doctors usually recommend women limit caffeine intake while with child, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) say any amount might be too much. Their study, looking at the brain scans of young children, finds caffeine consumption during pregnancy can lead to behavioral issues in kids later on.

An examination of 9,000 nine and 10-year-old children reveals changes in the brain’s structure among youngsters whose mothers regularly drank caffeine while pregnant. While the changes did not appear to be drastic, study authors noted elevated behavioral issues, attention difficulties, and hyperactivity among children exposed to caffeine in the womb.

“These are sort of small effects and it’s not causing horrendous psychiatric conditions, but it is causing minimal but noticeable behavioral issues that should make us consider long term effects of caffeine intake during pregnancy,” says principal investigator of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, John Foxe, Ph.D., in a university release. “I suppose the outcome of this study will be a recommendation that any caffeine during pregnancy is probably not such a good idea.”

“What makes this unique is that we have a biological pathway that looks different when you consume caffeine through pregnancy,” adds study first author Zachary Christensen. “Previous studies have shown that children perform differently on IQ tests, or they have different psychopathology, but that could also be related to demographics, so it’s hard to parse that out until you have something like a biomarker. This gives us a place to start future research to try to learn exactly when the change is occurring in the brain.”

What does caffeine do to the developing brain?

The ABCD study reveals consuming caffeine can impact the organization of white matter tracks in the brain. These tracks form the connections between brain regions.

“It is important to point out this is a retrospective study,” cautions Foxe, the director of the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience. “We are relying on mothers to remember how much caffeine they took in while they were pregnant.”

Researchers add that it’s unclear if caffeine affects the fetus differently depending on the pregnancy trimester. The results also do not reveal when exactly during the mother’s pregnancy these brain changes occur.

“Current clinical guidelines already suggest limiting caffeine intake during pregnancy – no more than two normal cups of coffee a day,” Christensen says. “In the long term, we hope to develop better guidance for mothers, but in the meantime, they should ask their doctor as concerns arise.”

Along with caffeine, previous reports have discovered a link between future behavioral issues and cannabis use during pregnancy. Even after delivery, studies find a link between mothers consuming sugary beverages while breastfeeding and poor cognitive development.

The study appears in the journal Neuropharmacology.