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New Danger for Drinking While Pregnant

Even a weekly glass of alcohol can lead to behavioral problems in your child, study says

TUESDAY, Aug. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If you have even one drink a week during pregnancy, it could mean your child will develop behavioral problems, a new study shows.

Women who drank even small amounts of alcohol while they were pregnant had children who were three times as likely to be aggressive, depressed, anxious or withdrawn than children not exposed to alcohol in the womb, researchers from Wayne State University found.

"The take-home message from this study is that we do not know what a safe level of alcohol intake is during pregnancy, if there is one," says its co-author, Dr. Virginia Delaney-Black, an associate professor of pediatrics at the university. "None may be the only safe level at the present time -- that's what we have to presume."

Lead author Dr. Beena Sood, also an associate professor of pediatrics at Wayne State, says the study involved 501 mothers and 501 children and was begun in 1986. "During each mother's pregnancy . . . we had the mother report at every visit about the amount and type of alcohol they had consumed," she says.

Six years after the births, the researchers contacted the mothers and gave them the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist to assess their child's behavior.

"It's a questionnaire where the parent rates the child's behavior on a scale from 1 to 5, and behavior problems are sub-grouped into aggressive or delinquent behavior -- what we call externalizing behaviors -- and internalizing behaviors such as anxiousness, depression, excessive complaining, or where the child is excessively withdrawn," explains Delaney-Black, who is also an assistant director of the Children's Research Center of Michigan, in Detroit. "This is a standard, well-validated and well-accepted measure of childhood behavior," she says.

The researchers also categorized the mother's alcohol consumption as none, low or moderate-heavy, she adds.

"Low was less than 0.3 ounces of alcohol per day averaged out over the whole pregnancy, and moderate-to-heavy was more or equal to 0.3 ounces per day averaged out over the pregnancy," she notes.

The alcohol consumption was then compared to how the mother rated her child's behavior.

"With increasing exposure to alcohol during pregnancy, the scores on the behavior measure were higher," says Sood. "And this was especially true for aggression and delinquent externalizing behavior," she adds, noting the odds of a child having behavioral problems if the mother drank while pregnant were 3.2-to-1 in the survey.

"And this effect was seen in women who had as little as one drink a week averaged out over the pregnancy," Delaney-Black notes. But she admits the "average" can't tell the whole story. "In other words, the mother could have no alcohol for a few weeks and then have a fifth on the weekend." A binge such as this would be more harmful than a tiny amount every day, experts say.

The findings are in the August Pediatrics.

A 1998 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the number of pregnant women who reported any alcohol use rose from 9.5 percent in 1992 to 15.3 percent three years later. At the same time, "frequent" alcohol use by pregnant women, defined as at least one episode of binge drinking or at least seven drinks per week, rose from 0.9 percent to 3.5 percent. A drink is defined as a 12-ounce glass of beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine or a 1-ounce shot of liquor.

Consuming alcohol while pregnant has been linked to devastating mental and physical damage common in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), the leading known cause of mental retardation. The CDC estimates there has been a six-fold increase in the number of FAS babies in the last 15 years.

"There's a growing body of research that's looking at the brain impairments that are caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol, and the resulting neurobehavioral disorder is the key concern and area of interest for researchers," comments Tom Donaldson, executive director of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Washington, D.C. "People have long understood the growth deficiencies and the mental retardation linked to alcohol use. But the behavioral and learning problems are not as much known."

This is significant research, Donaldson adds.

"We're getting closer and closer and, in light of this study, we are seeing more and more connection to alcohol and behavior problems. So it is really indefensible for practitioners to tell pregnant women that they ought not to worry about alcohol consumption," he says.

"No amount of alcohol, not even a glass of wine, is safe," he adds.

What To Do

If you're worried that your child may suffer from FAS, you can learn more about the syndrome at The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. For links to other sites, symptoms of FAS, and more information, try the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Family Resource Institute.

SOURCES: Interviews with Beena Sood, M.D., and Virginia Delaney-Black, M.D., MPH, both associate professors of pediatrics,Wayne State University, Detroit, Mich.; Tom Donaldson, executive director, National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Washington, D.C.; August 2001 Pediatrics
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