How alcohol affects your unborn baby

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Washington - Damage caused to the unborn child as a result of the mother consuming alcohol during pregnancy is more varied than previously believed.

While most children of women who drink heavily during pregnancy do not exhibit the typical observable symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), the number of those with impairment to the central nervous system is alarming, according to a recent report in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

In the initial investigation, a team led by Devon Kuehn and Edward Riley of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland in the US selected 101 of 10,000 pregnant women in Chile. All of them said they had consumed at least four drinks every day.

The data relating to 101 women who had abstained completely was used as a control. The children were observed by doctors up to the age of eight and a half. The doctors were not informed about the mothers' alcohol consumption.

Four-fifths of the drinking women gave birth to children with at least one anomaly. Central nervous system problems occurred with 44 percent of the children, by comparison with 14 percent for the children of abstaining mothers.

Children exposed to large quantities of alcohol in the womb also exhibited behavioural problems much more often and had problems with learning and language.

Observable symptoms, such as smaller cranial measurements, a flat appearance to the centre of the face and a narrow upper lip, were found less often than expected. At 27 percent, inhibited growth occurred around twice as often as in the abstaining group.

Around 17 percent of the children had symptomatic facial characteristics, while this figure dropped to one percent with the abstaining mothers.

A report linked to the study said that possibly many children with neurological problems were being incorrectly diagnosed, as the external signs were traditionally an important indicator in diagnosing FAS.

Symptoms of this kind have to date been included under the broader concept of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), but this does not constitute a clinical diagnosis.

Binge drinking, defined as more than 60 grams of alcohol a day, was seen by the researchers as particularly harmful. “Our study shows that binge drinking represents a greater risk factor even if the woman in any case drinks large quantities of alcohol every day,” Riley said. - Sapa-dpa

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