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Just Say No to Alcohol in Pregnancy

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 9, 2001 -- What's the harm in a little drink? If you're pregnant, perhaps a lot.

Heavy alcohol use has long been known to damage the developing baby, causing mental retardation, stunted growth, and abnormal facial features known as fetal alcohol syndrome. But even occasional drinking can lead to behavioral problems down the road -- as late as age 6 or 7 -- according to a new study in the Aug. 2 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommends not drinking any alcohol during pregnancy, study researcher Robert J. Sokol, MD, a distinguished professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Wayne State University in Detroit, tells WebMD. "Using even small amounts of alcohol has bad effects on later childhood behavior."

Sokol's group studied more than 500 mostly black, socially disadvantaged families over a six-year period. At age 6 to 7, the risk of delinquent behavior was three times greater in children whose mothers drank any alcohol during pregnancy than in those whose mothers abstained completely. Even one drink weekly increased risk of childhood behavioral problems such as aggression.

"This is an important new study that confirms again the wisdom of the Surgeon General's warning about not drinking during pregnancy or when planning a pregnancy," Ann P. Streissguth, PhD, director of the Fetal Alcohol and Drug Unit at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, tells WebMD.

"Since we know of no safe level of alcohol exposure during pregnancy, abstinence is the most prudent way to go," Mary J. O'Connor, PhD, tells WebMD after reviewing the study.

Alcohol may also interact with lead exposure and other drugs used by either parent, explains O'Connor, director of the Fetal Alcohol and Related Disorders Clinic and an adjunct professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA.

Although use of tobacco, cocaine, and other drugs during pregnancy may all affect the developing brain, Sokol says the evidence is more convincing for alcohol than for any other drug.

Current recommendations are that a woman stop drinking alcohol as soon as a pregnancy is suspected or confirmed, study co-author Beena Sood, MD, a pediatrician at Wayne State, tells WebMD.

Other researchers have reached conclusions similar to those in this study. "Our findings have consistently shown changes in both brain and behavior following heavy prenatal alcohol exposure," Sarah N. Mattson, PhD, an associate director of the Center for Behavioral Teratology and an assistant professor of psychology at San Diego State University, tells WebMD.

Her group has identified behavioral problems, lower IQ, clumsiness, and learning difficulties related to heavy prenatal alcohol exposure in children up to age 15, even if they lack the flat nose and other facial features typically seen in fetal alcohol syndrome.

Future studies recommended by Sood include following children who were exposed to alcohol in pregnancy through adolescence and adulthood to determine longer-term effects, examining whether the timing and pattern of alcohol exposure during pregnancy influence outcome, and studying characteristics that may make certain children more vulnerable.

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