CHILDREN born to mothers who drank alcohol after their birth and breast-fed were significantly lighter, had lower verbal IQ scores and a range of other problems, a study has found.
Conducted by experts from Stellenbosch University, UCT and institutions in the US, the study examined the prevalence and duration of alcohol exposure to infants and toddlers via breast-feeding.
Alcohol use during the period of breast-feeding was found to significantly compromise a child’s development.
The data originated from four population-based studies of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among Grade 1 students and their mothers in communities in the Western Cape.
The study found mothers of children with FASD were most likely to consume alcohol during breast-feeding and mothers who did not drink during pregnancy were least likely to consume alcohol after birth.
Nevertheless, even 42% of mothers who did not drink prenatally consumed alcohol for 12 months or more after they had given birth, while breast-feeding.
Those who drank alcohol after childbirth and breast-fed for 12 months or more had a significantly higher history of falling pregnant; suffered more stillbirths; had lower educational achievement; lower BMI; and were more likely to live in rural areas.
Mothers who drank after childbirth and breast-fed were 6.4 times more likely to have a child with FASD than breast-feeding mothers who abstained from alcohol.
Leana Olivier, chief executive for the Foundation for Alcohol-related Research, said there was a lack of awareness and education about the dangers of drinking after a mother had given birth.
“In the Western Cape, people know about FAS. Mothers say they know about FAS and that alcohol ‘might’ damage their child. Sometimes the messages are not clear. If you drink alcohol, you are putting your child at risk.”
Olivier said some used alcohol as a coping mechanism and with a culture of drinking prevalent, it was often difficult to stay away from it.
“In South Africa we should be at a stage where we say if you are at a child-bearing age and are not on contraceptives, and may be pregnant but you are drinking, you are putting your child at risk.”
Olivier has called for health workers to be informed of the dangers of drinking while breast-feeding, as alarmingly some professionals would tell expectant mothers that it would be okay for them to drink after they had given birth, and they should “just abstain for nine months” while pregnant.
Francois Grobbelaar, chief executive of FASfacts, which raises awareness about FAS, said drinking while breastfeeding would effect the still developing brain of the infant.
He said it was key that mothers were not only supported in efforts to stop drinking while pregnant, but also encouraged to continue to abstain from alcohol after birth.