SYDNEY, Australia — Is there any “safe” amount of alcohol a pregnant woman can drink without possibly doing harm to her unborn child? It doesn’t look like it, according to a new study from the University of Sydney. Researchers say even low levels of alcohol use while pregnant can potentially have a “significant impact” on the child’s brain and behavior after birth.
More specifically, just a little bit of alcohol indulgence while pregnant is associated with greater psychological and behavioral problems. These include anxiety, depression, and attention difficulties later in the child’s life.
The vast majority of people nowadays know it isn’t a good idea for a pregnant woman to drink alcohol. However, no study has conclusively established the effect of “low level alcohol use” by an expectant mother on her child. So, many continue to argue to this day that the occasional beer or glass of wine won’t hurt the baby.
No amount of drinking is safe when pregnant
To better investigate this topic, the study’s authors analyzed a dataset of 9,719 children between nine and 10 years-old. Overall, 25 percent had been exposed to alcohol while in the womb. Within that group, 60 percent had been exposed to low levels of alcohol and 40 percent had experienced higher levels.
Low level alcohol consumption was considered one to two drinks per occasion and no more than six drinks per week.
“Our research found that even small amounts of alcohol consumed while pregnant can have a significant impact on a child’s brain development,” says lead author Briana Lees, a PhD candidate at the Matilda Centre, in a media release.
“Previous research has shown that very heavy alcohol use, such as binge drinking, during pregnancy can cause harm to the baby. However, this study shows that any alcohol use during pregnancy, even low levels, is associated with subtle, yet significant behavioral and psychological effects in children including anxiety, depression and poor attention.”
“This study is so important because in Australia, around 50 percent of women drink alcohol before they know they are pregnant, and 25 percent do so after they know. The vast majority consume one or two standard drinks per occasion which this study shows is enough to impact the baby’s brain,” Lees adds.
Concerning behaviors emerge
Kids who had been exposed to low levels of alcohol in the womb dealt with more psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems than children whose mothers completely abstained. Those who been exposed to heavier levels of alcohol during the first six to seven weeks of pregnancy (36 drinks in total) were 25 percent more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis.
Children born to mothers who drank heavily during the early days of their pregnancy also tend to be more aggressive and break more rules. These kids had a 30 percent higher chance of being diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder.
“Generally, the more a child was exposed to alcohol in utero the more severe the outcomes were,” Lees explains. “Children experienced negative effects even if they were only exposed to low levels of alcohol during very early pregnancy (approximately 16 drinks in the first six to seven weeks) and then the mother stopped drinking. The difficulty is many women don’t know they are pregnant at that early stage.”
Kids born to mothers who had drank during pregnancy also showed clear signs of abnormal brain volume and surface areas.
“This research highlights the importance for women to be aware of the effects that even low levels of drinking can have on the brain development of babies. The safest option during pregnancy is to abstain from drinking any alcohol,” concludes senior study author Professor Maree Teesson, director of the Matilda Centre.
“This information is also important for women planning pregnancies. Even when planning pregnancy, it is safer to abstain from any drinking. Any alcohol consumption from conception throughout the entire pregnancy can impact the brain development of their baby.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.