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Limited amounts of alcohol during pregnancy do not harm children

Children born by mothers who have of consumed between 1 and 6 alcohol units per week are just as intelligent and well-developed as children of abstaining mothers. Mothers who have been drinking 5 or more drinks on a single occasion a limited number of times before realizing that they were pregnant may also breathe a sigh of relief; their children have not been harmed.

These are the findings of one of the most comprehensive studies done so far in this field on a global scale. The research project has resulted in a series of papers, which will be published today in the well-reputed international journal of obstetrics and gynaecology, BJOG.

The results are based on neuropsychological studies of 1,628 Danish children registered in the Danish National Birth Cohort 'Better Health for Mother and Child', which includes information on mothers' alcohol habits during pregnancy.

The five-year-old children's IQ, attention span and executive functions were tested in order to assess their abilities in planning, organizing and sustaining attention. Outcome measures were compared to a reference group consisting of peers born to mothers who abstained from alcohol consumption during pregnancy, and no differences were found between the two groups.

The new research findings are an important new contribution to the health information provided for pregnant women, according to Ulrik Schiler Kesmodel, associate professor at Aarhus University and consultant gynaecologist at Aarhus University Hospital, who was in charge of the research project.

"The Danish Health and Medicines Authority recommends pregnant women to abstain completely from alcohol consumption, but we know from other studies that about half of the pregnant women do not entirely stay away from alcohol during pregnancy. Many of these mothers report binge episodes during the period before they even knew that they were pregnant. Now we have scientific evidence which may set their minds at ease," says Ulrik Schiler Kesmodel.

These new findings may also send a message to the midwives and general practitioners who provide the women with health advice during pregnancy. We know that the pregnancy advice provided by the health professionals tend to vary, and this variation has been confirmed by former studies, according to Ulrik Schiler Kesmodel.

"Approximately half of the midwives and the general practitioners follow the recommendations from the Danish Health and Medicines Authority and tell the women not to drink alcohol at all during pregnancy, while the other half takes a more relaxed approach and tell the pregnant women that it will not harm the baby to have an occasional beer or a glass of wine. This is obviously very confusing for the pregnant women," says Ulrik Schiler Kesmodel.

He hopes that the new research results may ease the ongoing discussions and worries as to whether small amounts of alcohol may affect the unborn child. If a woman says that she consumes for example only 1 drink a week, Health professionals should instead focus on the factors that have been proven to affect the mother and the health of the child, in particular smoking and obesity.

Contact: Ulrik Schiler Kesmodel
Aarhus University

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