AusSMC: Light drinking during pregnancy fails to affect child development – experts respond

AusSMC: UK research has found light drinking during pregnancy does not harm a young child’s behavioral or intellectual development.

The study found children born to light drinkers were less likely to have behavioural problems than children whose mothers did not drink during pregnancy, but this effect was reduced after the authors adjusted for confounding factors such as socioeconomic status.

Boys and girls born to light drinkers had higher cognitive test scores compared with those born to mothers who did not drink during pregnancy, however only the differences for boys remained statistically significant after adjusting for the confounding factors. Children whose mothers drank heavily were more likely to be hyperactive and have behavioural and emotional problems than children whose mothers chose not to drink during pregnancy.

Professor Mike Daube is Director of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth at Curtin University, Western Australia:

“We know that the risks associated with alcohol are lower with low levels of use. It is, however, important to note that some of the levels of consumption associated with low risks in this study are very low indeed. There is and must be continuing concern about the wide range of developmental and other problems associated with alcohol use in pregnancy, and increasing levels of harms associated with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

“The best advice for women remains to follow the NHMRC guidelines and steer clear of drinking if they are pregnant or breastfeeding.”

Dr Lucy Burns is a Senior Lecturer and Chief Investigator at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales:

“This study compared the outcomes of children whose mothers drank during pregnancy. The finding highlighted in the paper was that children exposed to light drinking in pregnancy had better cognitive ability at age five years in comparison to children of mothers who did not drink during pregnancy. This was, however, only one of the many outcomes in the report, the majority of which found no improvements in child functioning. Given the increasing body of knowledge now showing that alcohol disrupts brain development in the foetus, together with the fact that we do not know exactly what a ‘safe’ level of consumption is, it seems most sensible to continue to promote abstinence during pregnancy as the best approach.”

Dr Colleen O’Leary is an NHMRC Post-Doctoral Fellow at the National Drug Research Institute and a Research Associate at the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, Western Australia:

“These research findings are consistent with other recent studies which show that low levels of prenatal alcohol exposure do not increase the risk of behaviour/socio-emotional difficulties and does not reduce cognitive ability in children. This study shows that there is an increased risk of emotional problems when mothers consume more than five drinks per week or per occasion during pregnancy. However, six drinks per week is not a very high level and it would be easy for a woman to exceed this amount without recognising it. We would continue to advise women that the safest choice is to not drink alcohol during pregnancy. The finding of a protective effect on cognitive ability in boys should be interpreted with caution as the effect was small and so the clinical relevance should not be over-interpreted. Study design and methodological issues are likely to have contributed to this finding.”

Professor Wayne Hall is Professor of Public Health Policy at the School of Population Health, University of Queensland:

“I think it highly unlikely that drinking small amounts of alcohol (one to two drinks per week) during pregnancy protect against childhood disorders. It is much more likely that women who report drinking these small quantities have children at lower risk of developing behaviour disorders because they have better diets, are healthier, use antenatal care, are better educated, probably drink alcohol with meals etc. The researchers have attempted to control for such confounders and found that the association was reduced but not eliminated. I doubt that they have been able to fully control for all these pre-existing differences in risk between these women and those who do not drink or who drink more than one to two drinks per week.”