- Researchers confirmed that drinking alcohol during pregnancy leads to children with poorer cognitive functions and increases the risk of lower birth weight.
- Researchers say this is the first time results from a number of different study designs were compared relating to the effect of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
- A recent study found that alcohol industry-funded websites routinely omit or misrepresent evidence on the risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
For expectant parents, few issues have the ability to cause controversy like consuming alcohol while pregnant.
While women in the United States have been warned to avoid all alcohol during pregnancy, some research has found that small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy may be safe.
Now, new research finds that the safest option for pregnant women is to avoid alcohol all together.
After analyzing 23 previously published studies, researchers confirmed that drinking alcohol during pregnancy leads to children with poorer cognitive functions and increases the risk of lower birth weight.
“We wanted to look at all of the evidence from different types of studies, in a comprehensive way,” Luisa Zuccolo, PhD, study lead and senior lecturer in epidemiology at Bristol Medical School: Population Health Sciences, told Healthline.
“We also found that for two outcomes, cognition and birth weight, there were enough studies of different type agreeing with each other, indicating a harmful effect of alcohol in pregnancy,” Zuccolo said. “This was not surprising, but it adds another piece to the jigsaw of evidence on this important public health question.”
The study was published Wednesday in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
Researchers say this is the first time results from a number of different study designs were compared relating to the effect of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
“The trickiest thing in this field is to be able to have comparable groups of pregnant women, and children, who only differ by alcohol consumed during pregnancy — this is how we can tell if alcohol causes the outcomes, rather than just being correlated with them,” said Zuccolo.
The analysis looked at both traditional studies like randomized controlled trials (RCT) and alternative strategies that involved comparing children in the same family whose mothers reduced or increased alcohol consumption between pregnancies.
Zuccolo explained that they used study designs with different methods and assumptions to make these groups comparable, as would be done in an experiment, so “we can be more confident in our conclusions, provided the results point in the same direction.”
Previous research on drinking during pregnancy was done using observational studies. This is when participants have been exposed to a risk factor and researchers don’t try to change who has or hasn’t been exposed.
“Our present study was the first to assess together the evidence from disparate sources, most of which included women drinking in moderation. The results are more robust than other reviews,” Zuccolo confirmed.
While the research was comprehensive, Zuccolo admits it was limited in its ability to establish the amount of alcohol that leads to a negative outcome.
A recent study finds that alcohol industry-funded websites routinely omit or misrepresent evidence on the risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. According to researchers, this may “nudge” women toward continuing to drink during pregnancy. The findings suggest that alcohol industry-funded bodies can increase risk to pregnant women by spreading misinformation.
“Alcohol is a teratogen, meaning it causes anomalies. Alcohol affects the developing fetal brain, heart, facial features, and impairs normal growth,” said Dr. Kecia Gaither, director of perinatal services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln.
Gaither explained that drinking during pregnancy increases the risk for fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a disorder characterized by symptoms that include:
- neurological issues like cognitive delay
- hearing issues
- cardiac abnormalities
- facial deformities
“These affects occur along a spectrum, and babies and children so affected grow up into adults so affected,” Gaither emphasized. “To my knowledge there is no threshold of drinking alcohol during pregnancy known so as to provide a guide as to how much will cause the syndrome or not. Therefore, women are advised not to imbibe at all during pregnancy.”
Dr. Ilan Shapiro, pediatrician at AltaMed Health Services and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said physicians are extremely concerned about a child’s brain development if their mother continues to consume alcohol during pregnancy.
“At the moment the brain starts developing inside of the womb, there’s a lot of connections that need to be made by the neurons,” said Shapiro. “When we add alcohol to the mix, while crucial parts of the brain are developing, it’s like trying to make a building using crooked foundations. That’s what’s happening in [fetal alcohol syndrome] — it simply doesn’t work.”
Shapiro mentioned that what was once considered healthy behavior during pregnancy can seem almost unbelievable given what has been learned over time.
“I would add that before, in the 1940s, they would suggest to calm what was then called ‘hysteria.’ To calm this, doctors actually recommended one or two cigarettes a day,” Shapiro said. “So, there are a lot of things that we know right now that were not in tune with reality, or with our current knowledge of health.”
“You’re deciding right now what are the best opportunities for your kid, and one of the most important things you can do is to avoid alcohol,” Shapiro concluded.
“Tobacco use in pregnancy, additionally, is related to a number of issues for the fetus,” Gaither said.
She explained that smoking produces carbon monoxide, which impairs the normal delivery of oxygen to the fetus. “Babies of moms who smoke additionally are at an increased risk of SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome], and lung dysfunction.”
According to Gaither, cannabis use during pregnancy can cause:
- impairment of brain development
- growth impairment in utero
- preterm birth
Pregnant women should talk to their physician to help them decide the right choice for them.
“They are utilized with a risk versus benefits approach, and certainly involve the input of an obstetrician/maternal fetal medicine specialist, and a psychiatrist in caring for the patient so affected with depression,” said Gaither.
A major new study find that there is no safe level of alcohol during pregnancy.
The study finds alcohol consumption in pregnancy is associated with low birth weight and cognitive deficits.
Experts say that pregnancy is when crucial brain development occurs and the best advice is to abstain completely from drinking during this time.