Consuming alcohol during pregnancy can affect birth weight and cognitive function, study confirms

Sarah Young
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Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight and poor cognitive function, according to scientists.

In a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, researchers from the University of Bristol investigated the impact alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have on a child.

The team assessed 23 published studies on drinking during pregnancy and found evidence that it could lead to lower birthweight and poorer cognitive functioning.

The researchers state that this is the first time results from a number of different study designs have been compared in relation to the effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

Methods included traditional studies such as randomised controlled trials, alongside alternative strategies such as comparing children in the same families whose mothers cut down or increased their alcohol use between pregnancies.

Previously, research on this topic has been through “observational” studies alone, where participants are already exposed to a risk factor and researchers do not alter this.

The scientists concluded that women should continue to follow advice from the UK Chief Medical Officers' #DRYMESTER guidelines, which advises them to abstain from alcohol during all trimesters in pregnancy.

Dr Luisa Zuccolo, senior lecturer in epidemiology from the University of Bristol, said: “The body of evidence for the harm that alcohol can do to children before they are born is growing, and our review is the first to look at the full range of studies on the issue.

"Our work confirms the current scientific consensus: that consuming alcohol during pregnancy can affect one's child's cognitive abilities later in life, including their education. It might also lead to lower birthweight.”

Zuccolo added that the findings are “more important than ever” given that recent research has shown the alcohol industry is promoting confusing information about the real health implications of drinking during pregnancy.

In October 2019, a study conducted by scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London investigated the way in which alcohol-funded bodies present information about alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

The team assessed the websites of 23 alcohol industry-funded firms, including Drinkaware in the UK and DrinkWise in Australia, and 19 public health organisations, including NHS Choices and the governmental Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

The researchers found that the alcohol industry-funded companies were less likely than the public health organisations to inform about foetal alcohol syndrome, a health condition that a baby can develop if a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy.

The alcohol-industry funded firms were also less likely to advise pregnant women not to drink any alcohol and more likely to “emphasise uncertainties” about alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

According to baby charity Tommy’s, “there is no known safe level for drinking during pregnancy”.

“When you drink, alcohol passes from your blood through the placenta and to your baby,” the charity states, outlining that the “safest approach is not to drink at all”.

“It is particularly advised not to drink alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy as this is a time of huge growth and development,” the organisation adds.

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