CHANGSHA, China — Put the beer down if you’re ready to start a family. According to a new study, men planning to conceive a child should stop drinking alcohol six months before conception to protect against heart defects in their future child. Moms-to-be aren’t off the hook either, with researchers recommending they abstain from alcohol even longer before conception than would-be fathers.
Researchers from Central South University in Changsha, China say that if a father-to-be is drinking alcohol three months before conception, or during the first trimester of a pregnancy, their child will have a 44% higher risk of congenital heart disease. Alcohol consumption during that same time period among prospective mothers was associated with a 16% higher risk.
Furthermore, binge drinking three months before conception was associated with an even higher birth defect risk; 52% among men, and 16% for women. For the purposes of the study, binge drinking was defined as five or more drinks in one sitting.
“Binge drinking by would-be parents is a high risk and dangerous behavior that not only may increase the chance of their baby being born with a heart defect, but also greatly damages their own health,” says study author Dr. Jiabi Qin in a statement.
All in all, Dr. Qin says the results of the study suggest that couples planning to start a family should stop drinking well before conception in order to give themselves the best chance of avoiding congenital heart disease and other birth defects. Dr. Qin recommends that prospective fathers cut alcohol consumption at least six months before conception, and moms-to-be should do the same a full year before conception. Of course, once pregnant, women should also abstain from alcohol, but that is a much more widely known recommendation.
These recommendations may sound excessively cautious at first glance, but consider the fact that congenital heart disease is among the most common birth defects the world over, with over one million newborn babies afflicted each year. These defects can lead to more serious cardiovascular diseases later on in life, and unfortunately, congenital heart disease is also the number one cause of perinatal death.
Previous research has looked into the connection between alcohol and congenital heart disease, but results have been inconclusive. This study is the first ever to utilize a meta-analysis to investigate how paternal alcohol consumption influences potential birth defects.
The research team compiled as much high-quality data on the subject they could find, which amounted to 55 studies all published between 1991-2019. In total, 41,747 babies with congenital heart disease and 297,587 without congenital heart disease were included in the meta-analysis. The researchers’ subsequent findings illustrated a clear relationship between alcohol consumption among both fathers and mothers and subsequent congenital heart disease.
“We observed a gradually rising risk of congenital heart diseases as parental alcohol consumption increased. The relationship was not statistically significant at the lower quantities,” Dr. Qin explains.
The study’s authors noted that their research was ultimately observational, and did not definitively establish causation. Additionally, their findings do not prove that paternal drinking is absolutely more harmful to a baby’s heart than maternal drinking. Finally, additional research is needed before a clear-cut 100% “safe” time to stop drinking alcohol can be established for both fathers and mothers.
“The underlying mechanisms connecting parental alcohol and congenital heart diseases are uncertain and warrant further research. Although our analysis has limitations – for example the type of alcohol was not recorded – it does indicate that men and women planning a family should give up alcohol,” Dr. Qin concludes.
The study is published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.