It seems like the ‘drinking while pregnant’ debate is a never-ending one. A new British study now reveals that children of mothers who indulged in moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy do not appear to have any neurodevelopmental problems with respect to balance. So, does that mean alcohol and pregnancy can mix? Read on.
Overview of the study
Using data from the ALSPAC study, the researchers investigated the long-term health consequences of in-utero alcohol exposure on the neurodevelopment of almost 7000 10-year-olds.
To measure dynamic balance, they asked the children to cross a beam, walking heal-to-toe. The test also assessed static balance: the children stood on one leg for 20 seconds with eyes open and closed. Their heel-to-toe balance on a beam was also measured.
In this study, low, moderate and high alcohol consumption was defined as 1-2, 3-7 and more than 7 drinks per week, respectively.
“Higher total maternal alcohol use during pregnancy was generally associated with better offspring balance outcomes,” the scientists write.
Since only some of these effects were considered strong, Professor John Macleod, of the University of Bristol, looked at genetic testing. Macleod explained that people who carry a certain gene are far more predisposed to drink less alcohol. Hence, if drinking more during pregnancy truly improved balance, the children whose mothers had the ‘low alcohol gene’ would be expected to have poorer balance.
But the results revealed that the children whose mothers had the low alcohol gene had actually better balancing skills compared to those whose mothers didn’t have the gene.
So, is alcohol consumption beneficial during pregnancy?
Before you pop the cork, you may want to know that Professor MacLeod told the Bristol Post that “[the scientists] are sceptical about whether these apparent beneficial effects are real.”
The researchers write that, when taken together, these findings do not provide strong evidence of any positive effect of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. They even mention that some of these beneficial effects “could have reflected chance findings.”
“The way to be sure your child does not suffer any adverse effects of alcohol use is not to use any alcohol,” declared Professor Macleod.
The UK Department of Health also advises women to abstain from drinking if they’re pregnant or trying to conceive. For those who wish to drink, the maximum would be 1 to 2 units of alcohol once or twice a week.
Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, declared: “We recognise that this is useful research. However, there is also a large amount of evidence suggesting that the cumulative effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can harm the developing foetus.”
This study comes on the heels of another British study which found no relation between light drinking during pregnancy and increased risk for mental defects at age 7.
Considerable limitations of the study
- Maternal alcohol consumption was self-reported — this could lead to report bias especially since drinking during pregnancy is a social stigma.
- The authors write that their balance measures had “low test reliability” which could have introduced errors in the assessments and estimates.
- The children who took part in the balance test were found to be socially advantaged compared to the remaining 7000 children who participated in the ALSPAC study. A higher economic status could very well be the key factor in better balance and could also offset subtle adverse consequences of moderate drinking.
The study was published in BMJ open.
Humphriss et al (2013) Prenatal alcohol exposure and childhood balance ability: findings from a UK birth cohort study. BMJ Open. 3(6).