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For over 50 years, pregnant women have been advised to avoid all alcohol consumption so that their babies will not be born with a a condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome. Now researchers are saying a few sips of wine are OK. But are they?

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has long been considered an absolute no-no. Now researchers are telling us a few sips of wine a week may be OK.

The findings published in the 17 April 2013 edition of BJOG: The British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, expand on earlier observations that heavy drinking during pregnancy definitely carries high risk of damage to the child.

Like several other observational studies before it, this research looked into the possibility that light drinking during pregnancy does harm the child.

The researchers identified 10,534 mothers of newborns in the UK, and asked them about their consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. The responses of the mothers indicated that:

  • 57.1% of mothers did not drink during pregnancy, although they drink when they are not pregnant,
  • 23.1% of mothers drank "lightly" during pregnancy, "lightly" defined as up to 2 alcohol units per week, the equivalent of 2 glasses of wine (175 ml per glass, 12.7% alcohol content),
  • 12.7% of mothers did not drink alcohol at any time, whether they were pregnant or not, and
  • 7.2% of mothers drank heavily during pregnancy.

Then when the children turned 7 years of age, the researchers asked parents and teachers to fill out questionnaires about the child's behavior patterns, with special attention to hyperactivity an other early indicators of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and they also tested the children's math and reading skills.

The British scientists were concerned about the differences between the children of the 69.8% of mothers who did not drink at all during pregnancy (the 12.7% who are teetotalers and the 57.1% who give up alcohol during pregnancy only) and the children of the 23.1% of mothers who drank up to 2 units of alcohol per week while they were pregnant. Numerous news stories report that there were no differences in the two groups of children, but that's not what the study actually found. Even after "statistical adjustment:"

  • Both boys and girls born to mothers who drank lightly during pregnancy scored slightly lower on reading tests (within the range of statistical significance) and
  • Boys born to mothers who drank lightly during pregnancy had significantly slower development of eye-hand coordination.

The researchers conclude that environmental influences after birth are likely to be more important in a child's development than whether or not the mother drank lightly during pregnancy, but it is inaccurate to say that this study found that there were no differences between the two groups of children at all. How does this finding stack up with other studies?

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