Light Drinking During Pregnancy Can Lead to Behavioral Problems Later

Updated: Tue, Aug 07 11:03 AM EDT

By Keith Mulvihill

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Children whose mother consumed even a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy may be at increased risk of behavioral problems later in life, according to the results of a new study.

Compared with teetotalers, women who drank the equivalent of one cocktail a week during pregnancy were three times more likely to have a child diagnosed with behavioral problems, researchers report.

"This study shows that adverse effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on childhood behavior are seen at lower levels of exposure than previously reported," said co-author Dr. Virginia Delaney-Black, of Children's Hospital of Michigan, in an interview with Reuters Health.

Delaney-Black, Dr. Beena Sood of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and colleagues report their findings in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics.

In the study, 506 women receiving prenatal care at an urban university hospital answered questions about their alcohol consumption throughout their pregnancy. The women were contacted again when their children were between 6 and 7 years of age and agreed to have their children tested for behavioral problems.

The investigators found that maternal alcohol consumption in pregnancy was linked to behavioral problems in children such as aggression, delinquent behavior and attention problems.

"Significantly, children with low levels of prenatal alcohol exposure--equivalent to an average of one cocktail per week across pregnancy--were three times as likely to have delinquent behavior scores in the clinical range," Delaney-Black told Reuters Health. This was true after the researchers took into account other factors that can influence a child's behavior.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome. Symptoms of the syndrome include physical defects as well as problems with intellectual functioning, such as lowered IQ, attention deficits, and behavioral and emotional problems.

Most studies in humans to date have reported adverse effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on childhood behavior at higher levels of exposure than reported in this study. Recently, there has been a suggestion that children exposed to even small amounts of alcohol prenatally may have significant problems, Delaney-Black explained.

Both Sood and Delaney-Black recommend that women avoid any amount of alcohol, even a few sips of wine, for the duration of pregnancy, "as we do not know the 'safe' dose of alcohol exposure, if one exists," they told Reuters Health.

"We would reinforce the Surgeon General's recommendation that pregnant women should abstain from drinking during pregnancy," they added.

SOURCE: Pediatrics 2001;108.

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