October 28, 2005

Pregnancy drinking harms baby’s vision: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Infants whose mothers regularly
drank during pregnancy may show poor vision by the age of 6
months, according to a new study.

Prenatal alcohol exposure is known to put babies at risk of
fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a cluster of problems such as
poor growth, delayed mental development and unusual facial
features. Because it's unclear how much alcohol is needed to
put the developing fetus at risk, women who are pregnant or
might become pregnant are advised to avoid drinking.

In the new study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics,
many of the babies with vision problems, though not all, also
had FAS.

In addition, the vision damage was found primarily among
babies born to women age 30 or older.

Exactly why a mother's age might matter is unclear,
according to the researchers, but it may be related to the fact
that older women are likely to have been habitually drinking
for a longer time.

Dr. R. Colin Carter of Children's Hospital Boston led the
study, which included 131 South African women and their
6-month-old babies. The researchers asked the women about their
drinking habits around the time of conception and during
pregnancy. They also gave the babies special tests that gauge
the sharpness of infants' vision.

The women were generally poorly educated, and more than
half said they drank while pregnant. The more they drank, the
study found, the higher the risk of their baby having poor

Nearly 17 percent of the babies had FAS, and of these, 27
percent had vision test scores near the bottom for their age --
compared with 9 percent of babies without FAS. Ten babies who
were not diagnosed with FAS also showed poor vision, and in
many of these cases, their mothers admitted to heavy drinking
during pregnancy.

The particular reason for the poorer vision --
alcohol-induced damage to the eye's retina, for instance, or to
vision-related areas of the brain -- is unknown, according to
the researchers. It's also unclear, they add, whether the
effect is permanent.

Regardless, the researchers conclude, the vision test used
in this study could be a useful tool for spotting some of the
harmful effects of prenatal drinking. Screening of babies born
to relatively older women could be particularly useful, the
study authors add, since they may be at greater risk of vision
problems from alcohol exposure.

SOURCE: Journal of Pediatrics, October 2005.