Experts question UK study which says light drinking in pregnancy is not harmful

EXPERTS warn mothers-to-be should not raise a glass to new British research showing “light drinking” during pregnancy has no detrimental effect.

The study tracked the long-term health of more than 11,500 British children born at the start of the decade and it found no sign of harm – and perhaps even a benefit – from mums who drank low levels of alcohol throughout their pregnancy.

The finding runs counter to official advice for Australia’s impending mums and experts say there were factors that may have skewed the data and abstinence remained the safest approach.

“The finding … was that children exposed to light drinking in pregnancy had better cognitive ability at age five years in comparison to children of mothers who did not drink during pregnancy,” said Dr Lucy Burns, senior lecturer and chief investigator at the University of NSW’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

“This was, however, only one of the many outcomes in the report, the majority of which found no improvements in child functioning.

“Given the increasing body of knowledge now showing that alcohol disrupts brain development in the foetus … it seems most sensible to continue to promote abstinence during pregnancy as the best approach.”

The study rated new mothers from either teetotal through to light drinkers (one or two standard drinks a week), moderate drinkers (three to six drinks weekly or five at any one time), and binge or heavy drinkers (seven or more drinks a week or six in any one sitting) during their pregnancy.

About 60 per cent of the mums abstained during pregnancy while one in four (26 per cent) were light drinkers, one in 20 (5.5 per cent) were moderate drinkers and 2.5 per cent were heavy drinkers.

Their children’s development was assessed at ages three and five years.

Heavy drinking mums were more likely to have children who were hyperactive and with behavioural and emotional problems.

But, in a surprise result, children of light drinkers were found to be 30 per cent less likely to have behavioural problems compared to mothers who abstained.

Professor Wayne Hall, from the University of Queensland’s School of Population Health, said it was “highly unlikely” that light drinking alone carried a benefit for children.

“It is much more likely that women who report drinking these small quantities have children at lower risk of developing behaviour disorders because they have better diets, are healthier, use antenatal care, are better educated (and) probably drink alcohol with meals.”

These benefits were unlikely to have been completely factored out by the researchers, Professor Hall said.

The expert reaction came as an Australian study was also released showing low levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy did not increase the risk of birth defect.

The study of 4,700 women who gave birth in Western Australia between 1995 and 1997 did however show drinking more than seven standard drinks a week during the first trimester carried a four-fold increased risk of birth defects.

“While this finding may provide some reassurance to mothers who unknowingly consumed alcohol before they knew they were pregnant, the best advice is still to follow the national guidelines that advise expecting mums to avoid alcohol in pregnancy,” said Dr Colleen O’Leary from Perth’s Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

The official advice of NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) is “for women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option”.

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