Drinking In Pregnancy Tied to Child's Later Alcohol Problems

by Colette Bouchez

Women who drink during pregnancy may increase their child's risk of developing an alcohol addiction as a young adult -- and as little as one drinking binge could set the downward spiral in motion.

That's the finding of a new study in the April issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. Researchers from the University of Washington offered first-time evidence that a mother's drinking habits during pregnancy might influence whether her child develops a problem with alcohol much later in their life.

"The goal of the study was to open new pathways of exploration into the causes of alcohol problems and possibly in understanding addiction to alcohol," says study author John Baer.

By examining the mother's drinking patterns, says Baer, the research appears to "predict, to some extent, the type and level of alcohol problems the child may experience later in life."

While he admits other factors certainly do figure into the equation -- most notably the environment in which the child is raised, as well as genetics -- he says that "we are reporting that the amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy also plays a role."

The 22-year study was conducted from a unique perspective in that during the time of the initial interviews, drinking was not considered dangerous to pregnancy. As such, Baer says the women had "no reason not to be honest when documenting the amount of alcohol they consumed while pregnant."

In this way, says Baer, the study may offer what is perhaps a more accurate accounting of alcohol consumption than what researchers might get if the same questions were asked of women today.

For obstetrician Dr. Steve Goldstein, the study offers yet one more important reason why pregnancy and alcohol don't mix.

"It adds to the growing body of evidence that if you drink alcohol when you are pregnant, it can affect your child -- with problems that can last a lifetime," Goldstein says.

His only concern was the study did not have a control group by which the authors could compare and contrast results.

"I think the finding would be more powerful if drinking could be isolated as the cause of alcohol problems in children later in life. But even without that proof the message remains the same: Alcohol has no place in pregnancy," Goldstein says.

The study involved 433 families in which the mothers were first interviewed some 22 years earlier concerning drinking habits just before, and during, their pregnancy.

Of the group, 80 percent said they drank alcohol both before and during pregnancy, while 31 percent reported heavy episodic drinking (five drinks or more, on occasion). The women also answered questions about other lifestyle habits, including smoking, as well as providing information on family history of alcoholism.

Twenty-two years later, the same 433 families were interviewed again. This time, however, the children also answered questions about their behavior.

By the time they were 21 years old, 83 percent of the children including reported they were already drinkers, with 8 percent exhibiting at least mild symptoms of alcohol dependence.

Baer points out that between the ages of 18 and 24 many young adults typically drink, sometimes heavily, and most do not develop alcohol problems later in life. At the same time, he adds those who do end up with alcohol addiction problems typically began drinking as young adults -- a correlation he now believes has something to do with whether mom drank during pregnancy.

While that correlation seems clear, the questions remain as to why. Still, Baer hopes his study will "open yet one more avenue of thinking by showing at least some evidence of links between maternal alcohol consumption and the child's alcohol-related behaviors later in life."

More information: Learn about the effects of alcoholism by visiting the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (www.niaaa.nih.gov). For more about the effects of alcohol during pregnancy, check out the March of Dimes.