Moderate drinking in pregnancy may not affect child’s IQ: study

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You might get dirty looks if you're sipping a glass of wine above a pregnant belly. You could even be refused a drink, as was one expectant mother at a California restaurant recently.

But it seems science might be on your side. A series of Danish studies are contradicting conventional medical wisdom that any amount of alcohol during pregnancy is harmful to the fetus. Researchers found that moderate levels of alcohol during pregnancy did not affect the child's IQ or attention span at five years of age.

"It's always very good for us to see more research trying to solve the question of exactly what amount of exposure to alcohol can occur before it's recognized that it's harmful to the fetus," says Dr. Vyta Senikas, obstetrician/gynecologist and acting executive vice-president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.

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Danish researchers had a total of 1,628 pregnant women report on their weekly alcohol consumption, and divided them in groups of low, moderate and high consumption. They then tested their offspring at five years of age. They also tested maternal IQ and adjusted for that and for smoking habits.

It turns out that low and moderate drinking — or up to eight drinks a week — during early pregnancy didn't affect the children's IQ, attention, or executive functions. The work is published in the journal BJOG: International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

"Our findings show that low to moderate drinking is not associated with adverse effects on the children aged five," the researchers say in a statement. "However, despite these findings, additional large scale studies should be undertaken to further investigate the possible effects."

While the research comes as hopeful news to Dr. Senikas, she warns that it doesn't mean drinking while pregnant is safe.

Most of the research in this area has been focused on children around two years of age, so while this study has increased the age to five, Senikas suggests that even age five might be too young to establish the effect of fetal alcohol exposure.

"The big thing with executive function is that it really kicks in in adolescence," she says. "When you talk to parents who have kids with part of that behavioural spectrum of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, they will tell you that where they really noticed the problem was when the children entered adolescence."

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She hopes the Danish researchers will continue to track these kids into their teenage years. But for now, she insists we still haven't found a safe level of alcohol for pregnant women to consume, so it's best for them to avoid drinking altogether if they can.

"We have some very heavy drinkers where the kids are only mildly affected," she says. "On the other hand, we have some individuals who alleged to mild drinking and the effects have been marked."

While she doesn't see the new results as a license for pregnant women to drink, she does see it as a positive sign for those who had had a few too many before they knew they were pregnant. And that's especially common when 50 per cent of pregnancies in Canada are unexpected, she explains.

And, she says, "We're all humans, we can't be judgmental."

To see a news report on the new research, watch the video below.

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