London - One in six children have symptoms caused by mothers drinking in pregnancy, research suggests.
Screening on 13 500 children by the universities of Bristol and Cardiff found 79 percent were exposed to alcohol in the womb, and the development of 17 percent had been affected as a result.
The researchers looked for signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which can in some cases cause devastating disabilities such as cerebral palsy, blindness and learning difficulties.
But critics said the study used a much lower bar to look for signs that alcohol had impacted a child’s development and vastly overstated the problem, causing many women needless anxiety.
Experts say FASD is often missed by doctors, leaving children without the right help and their younger siblings at risk of harm if mothers drink during future pregnancies. The UK has one of the highest pregnancy drinking rates in the world, at just over 40 percent.
The new study, published in the Preventive Medicine journal, tracked children born in the 1990s until the age of 15.
The researchers looked for children with three different signs of FASD, including learning or behavioural developmental problems and physical anomalies such as growth deficiency and distinctive facial features such as a thin upper lip or small eye openings.
Research leader Dr Cheryl McQuire of the University of Bristol said: "The results are based on a screening tool, which is not the same as a formal diagnosis. Nevertheless, the high rates of prenatal alcohol use and FASD-relevant symptoms that we found in our study suggest that FASD is likely to be a significant public health concern in the UK.
"Guidance states the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all if you are pregnant, or think you may become pregnant. It is important people are aware of the risks so they can make an informed decision about drinking in pregnancy."
The study’s 17 percent rate of FASD is well above previous indications pointing to a level of less than five percent.
Clare Murphy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said it would needlessly alarm many women, some of whom are already "wracked with guilt" because they drink before they find out they are pregnant. "We advise real caution over the interpretation of these findings," she said.Daily Mail