Fetal alcohol syndrome, a disorder that is classified by abnormalities such as a smaller than normal head circumference, low birth weight, altered eye and lip shape and mental or neurological complications. It is a condition that is caused through alcohol consumption during pregnancy. And while drinking at any stage during pregnancy can increase the odds of fetal alcohol syndrome, researchers have recently discovered that the risks are highest during the second half of the first trimester.
For the study, Dr. Christina Chambers of the University of California, San Diego and her colleagues recruited 992 pregnant women that had called the California help line for answers to their questions about substance use during pregnancy – alcohol, illegal drugs, chemical exposure and prescription drug exposure.
Each participant was asked about their alcohol consumption levels during pregnancy and their infants were given a full screening after birth. The doctors who performed the examinations did not know if the infants had been exposed to alcohol or some other substance during the pregnancy, so their conclusions were based on symptoms alone.
For each extra drink consumed per day during the second half of the first trimester, the odds of an abnormally shaped upper lip increased by 25 percent, odds of a smaller than normal head was increased by 12 percent for each drink and the odds of a low birth weight increased by 16 percent. During the final trimester, only the length of the infant seemed to be affected. Binge drinking, which is considered to be four drinks or more on one occasion did not seem to affect the risk factors, however.
So overall, researchers found that a higher consumption of alcohol during pregnancy increased the chances of the infant having physical abnormalities consistent with fetal alcohol syndrome. Researchers pointed out, however, that there are other risk factors that determine if and to what extent the infant is affected by alcohol consumption.
“Even if you find 10 women who drink a quart of vodka a day, maybe only five of those babies will have full-blown fetal alcohol syndrome, because there are different factors that influence the risk,” stated Chambers.
According to Ed Riley of San Diego State University, another physician that studies prenatal alcohol exposure but did not participate in the study, says that some of those factors could include body fat levels, environmental exposures other than alcohol exposure, genetic differences, and diet.
Researchers really want to drive home, however, that there still is no “acceptable” threshold for alcohol consumption. Developing brains are “very sensitive to prenatal alcohol exposure” according to Riley.
Chambers also shared her final thoughts, saying, “The take-home message is that there’s not a low threshold level below which drinking alcohol doesn’t raise the risk. This supports the surgeon general’s recommendation that drinking should be avoided entirely.”
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