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New Danish Study Suggests Moderate Drinking in Early Pregnancy OK?

by Katlyn Joy | June 29, 2012
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A study out of Denmark published this week (June 20, 2012) in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that low to moderate weekly alcohol consumption during early pregnancy had no adverse neuropsychological effects on five-year-old children. Higher consumption was associated with lower attention span in children the same age.

The study looked at the drinking habits of 1,628 women who were of the average age of 30, and approximately half were first-time mothers. About a third of the women were also smokers.

The study tested the children in regards to IQ, attentiveness, and self-control.

Low weekly drinking was defined as 1 to 4 drinks a week, moderate drinking 5 to 8 drinks and heavy drinking was 9 or more drinks in a week. Binge drinking was defined as 5 or more drinks at a time.

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics takes a strong stand against alcohol use during pregnancy. "The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that women who are pregnant, or who are planning to become pregnant, abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages of any kind," due to alcohol consumption being the leading cause of preventable birth defects including mental retardation.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. The Academy website notes that 2 out of every 1,000 babies born in the US have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This is the leading cause of mental retardation in the US.

The March of Dimes website reports that recent government studies revealed 1 in 12 American women drink during pregnancy, and 1 in 30 are binge drinkers.

The March of Dimes also quotes studies that have conflicting findings compared to the Danish one. For instance, a 2007 study found that women who were considered drinkers at low levels had female offspring who were more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems at ages 4 and 8.
Another study done in 2002 found that 14 year olds born to mothers who drank as little as one drink a week had smaller head circumference (an indicator of brain size) and were shorter and leaner than children of non-drinkers.

A different Danish study done in 2008 found that women who binge drink 3 or more times in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy had a 56 percent higher risk of stillbirth. Another study found that women who had 5 or more drinks a week were 70 percent more likely to have a stillborn child.

The findings of the latest Danish study should be taken with caution, as no known quantity or frequency of alcohol has ever been proven safe in pregnancy.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is believed to be present in between 1000 and 6000 US babies born each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

FAS causes low birthweight babies, frequently have birth defects particularly of the heart, and most suffer intellectual effects. Many have coordination problems, attention problems, speech impairments, and behavior and emotional difficulties throughout life. FAS is completely preventable and non-reversible. It is a permanent condition.

Children with FAS have characteristic facial features such as small eyes, a thin upper lip with a smooth surface between the nose and upper lip. Often the ears are affected as well.

Children with FAS often do not grow up to live independently and are prone to be targets socially and especially given to poor judgment and frequently end up in trouble with the law.

How the Damage Occurs

When a woman drinks, alcohol passes from the placenta into the growing child. However alcohol is metabolized much slower in the fetus and blood alcohol levels go to higher levels and remain elevated longer than in the mother. This exposure to alcohol in the womb can cause lifelong damage or even death.

How to Interpret the Studies

Pregnant women who had a few drinks before knowing they were pregnant should not become overly worried or concerned. Those who did binge drink should consult their health care provider and monitor the pregnancy for any potential problems.

For those who are pregnant, a simple test is the risk/benefit ratio. What is the benefit of drinking while pregnant versus the possible risk to the baby? Most women, as well as Baby Corner agrees with the leading US health organizations, that abstinence during pregnancy is the best choice.

Do you agree with the study? Tell us your thoughts by commenting below.


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