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Baby development 'unharmed' by occasional pregnancy drink

Wednesday October 6th, 2010

Women who drink small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy do not harm their child’s behavioural or intellectual development, according to a major study published today.

Dr Yvonne Kelly, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, England, and colleagues found that children born to "light" drinkers were 30 per cent less likely to have behavioural problems than those whose mothers did not drink during pregnancy.

The findings alarmed midwives - who said it could lead to women thinking alcohol was safe in pregnancy. The research continues to link a mother's heavy drinking to a child's later behaviour problems.

The research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, used data from the Millennium Cohort Study, using a sample of 11,513 children born between September 2000 and January 2002.

When their babies were nine months old, mothers were interviewed in person and questioned, among other things, about their drinking patterns while pregnant. Using the UK Government’s National Alcohol Strategy as a guideline, the women were classified as teetotal; those who drank but not in pregnancy; light (one or two units a week or at any one time); moderate (three to six units a week or three to five at any one time); and binge/heavy (seven or more units a week or six at one sitting).

When the youngsters reached the age of three, the mothers were questioned about their children’s behaviour. Two years later, the youngsters’ behavioural and intellectual development were formally assessed.

Just under six per cent of the women said they never drank, while 60 per cent said they abstained from alcohol during their pregnancy. About one in four said they were light drinkers, while one in 20 said they were moderate drinkers during pregnancy. The remaining 2.5 per cent of women said they drank heavily or binged on alcohol while pregnant.

Researchers found that across the entire sample, boys were more likely than girls to have developmental problems, behavioural issues, be hyperactive, and have issues with their peers. Girls were more likely to have emotional issues.

Girls achieved higher average scores than the boys on their cognitive abilities, which were measured by a vocabulary test, pinpointing visual similarities and making patterns.

Children whose mothers were heavy drinkers were more likely to be hyperactive and have behavioural and emotional problems than those whose mothers abstained during pregnancy.

There was no evidence that behavioural or intellectual development of children whose mothers drank lightly during the pregnancy being compromised. In fact, they were 30 per cent less likely to have behavioural problems than children whose mothers did not drink during pregnancy, she reported.

After taking account of a wide range of influential factors, these children achieved higher cognitive scores than those whose mums had abstained from alcohol while pregnant.

Janet Fyle, of the Royal College of Midwives, said: "Any research in this area is welcome. However, I am concerned that this may send out a message to pregnant women that it is okay to drink alcohol. There is no firm evidence that small amounts of cumulative alcohol consumption does not have an effect on the developing foetus.

"Because of this our advice to women remains the same; if you are planning to become pregnant if you are pregnant it is best to avoid drinking alcohol."

She added: "The issue here is that women who have drunk alcohol and discover they are pregnant should not panic though. It is also important for midwives to give advice to women about alcohol based on their individual situations. Ultimately, it is the woman's choice about whether she consumes alcohol during pregnancy as long as she has been provided with the facts about alcohol in pregnancy."

J Epidemiol Community Health 2010; doi 10.1136/jech.2009.103002

Tags: Child Health | Childbirth and Pregnancy | Drug and Alcohol Abuse | Nursing & Midwifery | UK News | Women’s Health & Gynaecology

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