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Light Drinking During Pregnancy Does Not Harm Child

October 7, 2010

Women who drink a few units of alcohol per week during pregnancy do not increase the risk of developmental problems in their child, according to a controversial new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Official advice remains that women abstain completely from drinking any alcohol during pregnancy.

But, in a study of more than 11,000 five-year-olds no evidence of harm was found in children whose mothers drank lightly during pregnancy. There were far more behavioral and emotional problems among the children of heavy-drinking women.

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it passes through the placenta and reaches the baby. Researchers have linked heavy drinking to an increased risk of lifelong damage. However, the evidence of the risks to lighter drinkers has been far less clear.

The study, conducted by University College London and three other UK universities, is the second by this group examining large numbers of children looking for signs of affected brain development.

The first study found no evidence of brain development problems at age three, but the researchers conducted a second study checking kids until school age to make sure nothing had emerged later on.

The same result appeared in the second study, with no extra behavioral and emotional issues compared with children whose mothers abstained from drinking during pregnancy. In fact, the children born to light drinkers appeared less likely to suffer behavioral problems, and scored higher on cognitive tests, compared to babies from women who abstained during pregnancy.

“There’s now a growing body of robust evidence that there is no increase in developmental difficulties associated with light drinking during pregnancy,” said Dr Yvonne Kelly, from UCL, adding that women could make “better decisions” with this information.

A spokesman for the Department of Health, however, said it would not change its advice to avoid confusion among pregnant women.

“After assessing the available evidence, we cannot say with confidence that drinking during pregnancy is safe and will not harm your baby,” the spokesman told BBC News. “Therefore, as a precautionary measure, our advice to pregnant women and women trying to conceive is to avoid alcohol.”

Advice from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence also urges women to avoid alcohol, particularly in the first three months of pregnancy.

The advice was also backed up by Chris Sorek, chief executive of alcohol awareness charity Drinkaware.

“Despite these findings, it is important to remember that ‘light drinking’ can mean different things to different people,” he told BBC. “There is a risk that if pregnant women take this research as a green light to drink a small amount, they could become complacent, drink more than they think they are and inadvertently cause harm to their unborn child.”

But Dr Tony Falconer, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said that while the “safest choice” was abstinence, the current evidence suggests that drinking one or two units, once or twice a week was acceptable.

The key message, “is that light drinking is fine, but heavy and bilge drinking should be avoided,” Falconer said.

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