Drinking While Pregnant May Boost Child's Alcoholism Risk

It's another reason not to drink during pregnancy, experts say

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 6, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Children born to moms who drank during their pregnancy are at increased risk of drinking problems by the time they are 21, a new study finds.

"We know about the detrimental effects of alcohol during pregnancy on brain development and some physical malformations, but this is one of the best studies showing that alcohol use itself may be another risk factor," said Dr. James Garbutt, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It's another reason not to drink during pregnancy."

Garbutt was not involved in the study, which was conducted by Australian researchers and was published in the September issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

In the study, Rosa Alati, from the University of Queensland, Herston, Australia, and colleagues collected data on alcohol abuse for over 2,100 people followed from birth to age 21.

The participants' mothers were also asked how often and how much they drank at any given time.

At 21 years of age, 25 percent of the children had some kind of alcohol problem, the researchers said. Of these, 13 percent said they developed the problem before they were 18, and 12 percent said they developed the problem between 18 and 21, Alati's team found.

Analysis of the data showed that children of mothers who drank more than three glasses of alcohol on any one occasion during early pregnancy were nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to develop an alcohol disorder before age 18 and more than twice as likely to develop an alcohol problem between ages 18 and 21.

Drinking during other stages of pregnancy, including late pregnancy, also increased the risk, the researchers found.

"Our findings support a biological contribution to the origin of alcohol disorders and suggest that greater attention should be given to the role of the programming effect of in utero alcohol exposure to the development of alcohol disorders in adulthood," Alati's group concluded.

Another expert agreed that the study provides more evidence of the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.

"This paper makes a convincing case that increased maternal alcohol consumption, especially early in pregnancy, is likely a cause of alcohol problems in young adulthood," said Dr. Redford Williams, the director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.

It is known that increased maternal alcohol use is associated with altered brain development in the fetus, as well as fetal alcohol syndrome in newborns, Williams said.

"The major potential problem in interpreting these findings is the possibility, unexamined in this study, that genetic factors that influence maternal drinking may also be present in the offspring and contribute -- in addition to, or via, an interaction with the increased exposure to alcohol to the offspring's drinking behavior at age 21," Williams said.

However, "whatever the mechanism eventually turns out to be, these findings make a strong case for not drinking during pregnancy," Williams said.

More information

There's more on alcoholism at the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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