No Safe Level of Alcohol During Pregnancy

The cardinal rule of a safe pregnancy is to avoid heavy drinking. However, new research indicates that even light to moderate drinking should be avoided as it may interfere with learning and memory in children as late as adolescence.

"We have known for a long time that drinking heavily during pregnancy could lead to major impairments in growth, behavior, and cognitive function in children," says Jennifer Willford, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh. She says, "This paper clearly shows that even small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can have a significant impact on child development."

Researchers define light drinking as three or less drinks per week, and moderate drinking is more than three drinks a week, but less than one drink per day. These relatively low levels of alcohol consumption were associated with subtle difficulties with initial learning and memory and recall in 14-year-old children, specifically in the auditory/verbal area. The exposure to alcohol also caused growth delays in these children.

These deficits were specific to alcohol exposure during the first trimester of pregnancy and remained significant after other variables were controlled. The researchers say these cognitive deficits have important implications for intellectual potential, school achievement, and future cognitive abilities.

"There is no safe level of drinking during pregnancy and there is no safe time to drink during pregnancy," says Willford. "Women need this information before pregnancy recognition and their first visit to an obstetrician so that they may make better choices about drinking if they are planning to become, or think that they may be pregnant."

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