Babies' Brains Hindered by Alcohol

Fetal alcohol syndrome may cause only developmental problems without physical symptoms

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Fetal alcohol syndrome results when babies are exposed to high amounts of alcohol in the womb. It usually involves distinctive facial features - but not always.

A recent study has found that children may have problems with brain development or behavioral development as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome even if their outward appearance doesn't show the symptoms of the disorder.

"Don't drink while pregnant."

The study, led by Devon Kuehn, MD, of the Epidemiology Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), was part of a long-term study on heavy drinking called the NICHD-University of Chile Alcohol in Pregnancy Study.

The study involves interviews with over 9,000 women, all of whom went to a community health clinic in Santiago, Chile, about how much alcohol they did or didn't drink while they were pregnant.

From this larger group, the researchers focused on the 101 women who reported having four or more drinks per day while pregnant.

The researchers also included in the study 101 women who did not drink during pregnancy but who shared similar characteristics of the alcohol-consuming ones.

The researchers evaluated the babies of all 202 women immediately after birth and at regular points for eight years, taking into account the children's physical, intellectual and emotional development.

In about 44 percent of the children born to the drinking mothers, researchers identified problems related to hyperactivity, language delays, attention deficits or intellectual delays - even if the children who did not have the facial features indicative of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Only 17 percent of these children had those facial features, which include narrow, small eyes with large eyelids, a smaller head and smaller upper jaw, a smooth groove in the upper lip and a thin, smooth upper lip.

Yet 27 percent had delayed growth, compared to only 13 percent among the babies of women who did not drink.

"Our concern is that in the absence of the distinctive facial features, healthcare providers evaluating children with any of these functional neurological impairments might miss their history of fetal alcohol exposure," Dr. Kuehn said. "As a result, children might not be referred for appropriate treatment and services."

A total of 35 percent of the babies born to drinking mothers had cognitive and intellectual delays in their development, and 42 percent had language delays.

Among the children born to moms who didn't drink during pregnancy, only 6 percent showed cognitive delays and 24 percent had delays in language development.

There was also a much higher rate of hyperactivity - 27 percent of the children - among the kids whose mothers drank alcohol four or more times a day during pregnancy. Only 2 percent of the non-drinking moms' kids had hyperactivity.

Closer study of the children born to moms who reported binge drinking while pregnant revealed that these children were more likely to experience all of these outcomes.

The study was published July 23 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. The funding came from the National Institutes of Health, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Capital Consortium and the University of Chile in Santiago.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 22, 2012
Last Updated:
February 12, 2013