Moderate drinking in pregnancy doesn't harm childhood balance
18th June 2013 - Moderate drinking during pregnancy - three to seven glasses of alcohol a week - does not seem to harm foetal neurological development, at least when measured by a child’s ability to balance.
In fact a large study led by academics at the University of Bristol and published in the online journal BMJ Open, found an apparently beneficial effect from prenatal alcohol exposure, although researchers say social advantage may be a factor, as women who are more likely to drink moderately tend to be better educated and more affluent.
A Department of Health spokesperson commenting on the study says: "Drinking during pregnancy can be associated with miscarriage, foetal alcohol syndrome and low birth weight.
"Our advice remains that women who are trying to conceive or are pregnant should avoid alcohol. If women choose to drink, to minimise the risk to the baby, they should not drink more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week and should not get drunk.
Janet Fyle, from the Royal College of Midwives, says in an e-mail: "We recognise that this is useful research. However, there is also a large amount of evidence suggesting that the cumulative effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can harm the developing foetus.
"Our advice continues to be that for women who are trying to conceive or those that are pregnant it is best to avoid alcohol."
Balance is an important neurodevelopmental outcome in children, underpinning many motor skills. This latest study investigates the association between prenatal alcohol exposure and balance in10-year-old children.
The researchers assessed the ability to balance of almost 7000 10 year olds who were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).
ALSPAC has been tracking the long term health of around 14,000 children born between 1991 and 1992 to women resident in the former Avon region of the UK.
Those children whose mothers’ alcohol consumption was known, underwent a 20 minute balance assessment when they reached the age of 10.
The assessment included dynamic balance (walking on a beam); and static balance ( heel to toe balance on a beam, standing on one leg for 20 seconds) with eyes open and then again with eyes closed. Each child had two attempts at the test.
Most of the children’s mums had drunk no alcohol (70%) while pregnant, while one in four drank between one and two (low consumption) and three and seven glasses a week (moderate consumption).
Some 4.5% drank seven or more glasses a week. Of these, around one in seven were classified as binge drinkers - four or more glasses at any one time.
In general, the mums who drank more, but who were not binge drinkers, were better off and older; the mums who binge drank were less well off and younger.
Higher total alcohol consumption before and after pregnancy by the mums, as well as higher consumption by the dad during the first three months of pregnancy, were, perhaps surprisingly, associated with better performance by the children, particularly when it came to static balance. The reason for this may be social advantage, not alcohol consumption.