A neurosurgeon, Dr. James Oshiorenua, says alcohol consumption during pregnancy, no matter how little, can impact negatively on a child’s brain development and impair neurological functions.
He said alcohol was listed among teratogenic drugs that could affect or alter the normal development of the foetus.
Speaking exclusively with the Newsmen, the expert said alcohol use during pregnancy was the leading cause of preventable foetal developmental disabilities.
He explained that a teratogen is an agent that can disturb the development of the embryo or foetus, halt the pregnancy or produce a congenital malformation (a birth defect).
Oshiorenua warned that taking alcohol while pregnant can also cause a wide range of lifelong physical, behavioural, and intellectual disabilities, especially fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).
“The baby’s brain is developing throughout pregnancy and can be affected by exposure to alcohol at any time.
“When a pregnant woman ingests any kind of alcoholic drink, it swiftly passes through the placenta, which is the only source of nutrition for the unborn child via the umbilical cord, to the baby.
“There, it affects the brain, central nervous system, legs, teeth, heart, eyes, ears, arms, external genitalia, and palate of the foetus.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and prevention, there is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy and no safe time during pregnancy to drink.
It warned that all types of alcohol are equally harmful, including wines and beer.
Shedding more light on alcohol consumption while pregnant, a new research revealed that it can lead to psychological and behavioural problems in youth that include anxiety, depression and poor attention.
The research, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, was led by the University of Sydney, Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use.
The researchers noted that the effect of alcohol consumption during pregnancy on child development is relatively unknown and there have been extensive debates about whether there is a safe level of consumption.
The team said they investigated whether any alcohol consumption in pregnancy was related to psychological, behavioral, neural and cognitive differences in children aged nine to ten years.
They explained that they carried out the study using a sample of 9,719 youth, which was the largest study to investigate the impacts of low-level alcohol use during pregnancy.
The researcher noted that low levels of drinking were considered one to two drinks per occasion with a maximum of six drinks per week.
The lead author, Briana Lees, a Ph.D. candidate at the Matilda Center said “Our research showed that even small amounts of alcohol consumed while pregnant can have a significant impact on a child’s brain development.
“Previous research has shown that very heavy alcohol use, such as binge drinking, during pregnancy can cause harm to the baby.
“However, this study shows that any alcohol use during pregnancy, even low levels, is associated with subtle, yet significant behavioral and psychological effects in children including anxiety, depression and poor attention.
“This study is so important because in Australia, around 50 per cent of women drink alcohol before they know they are pregnant, and 25 per cent do so after they know.
“The vast majority consume one or two standard drinks per occasion, which this study shows is enough to impact the baby’s brain,” she said.
The researchers revealed that in the study, 25 per cent of children had been exposed to alcohol in utero (in the womb), while 60 per cent were exposed to low-level alcohol use, and 40 percent, exposed to heavier levels.
They explained that heavier exposure is classed as three or more drinks per occasion or seven or more drinks per week.
Children who were exposed to low levels of alcohol in-utero at any time during pregnancy, the researchers revealed, “Experienced more psychological, emotional problems (including anxiety, depression and being withdrawn) and behavioral problems (including poor attention and being impulsive) than unexposed children.
“There was a 25 per cent increased likelihood of an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis in children who were exposed to slightly heavier levels of alcohol (approximately 36 drinks) in the first six to seven weeks of pregnancy.
“Heavier alcohol use during early pregnancy was also associated with rule breaking behavior and aggression, with a 30 per cent higher risk of the child being diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder than unexposed youth.
“There were differences observed in brain volume and surface area among the exposed children, which contributed to the psychological and behavioral problems,” they said.
The team estimated that the number of drinks consumed during pregnancy ranged from 0 to 90 with the average being 27.
“The majority of drinks were consumed in the first six to seven weeks prior to pregnancy knowledge.
“Generally, the more a child was exposed to alcohol in utero the more severe the outcomes were.
“Children experienced negative effects even if they were only exposed to low levels of alcohol during very early pregnancy (approximately 16 drinks in the first six to seven weeks) and then the mother stopped drinking.
“The difficulty is many women don’t know they are pregnant at that early stage.
“The data indicates that there is no completely safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy,” Lees warned.
Senior author and Director of the Matilda Centre, Professor Maree Teesson, said the findings are important for families, clinicians and policy makers moving forward.
“This research highlights the importance for women to be aware of the effects that even low levels of drinking can have on the brain development of babies,” she said.
Teesson advised that the safest option during pregnancy is to abstain completely from alcohol consumption.
“This information is also important for women planning pregnancies.
“Even when planning pregnancy, it is safer to abstain from any drink,” Teesson advised.