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Alcohol and the Unborn Baby

The effects of alcohol and alcohol addiction on the unborn baby have been debated for years. Some past studies had indicated that no level of alcohol is safe for the fetus while others indicated that it was advisable to limit alcohol intake to a certain number per day or a certain type of drink. However, these studies were flawed, often depending on the recall of the mother about her alcohol intake months after the fact.

Thankfully, a new study is much more conclusive. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have closely followed 992 women who were pregnant between the years 1978 and 2005. In this new study, researchers were much more careful to ask periodic questions about alcohol consumption while the mothers-to-be were still pregnant, instead of asking questions after the birth of the child (when recall was not as sharp).

This intense focus on questioning mothers when recall was sharpest was only part of the reason the study is so much more conclusive. In addition, the follow-up on the children was more intense as well. Researchers had physicians complete a full physical exam after birth to determine if alcohol affected a child’s physical development. The physicians were not aware upon examination if the mother had consumed any alcohol; they simply reported any abnormalities on a double-blind basis.

The findings fully support the surgeon general’s warning that no amount of alcohol is safe to consume during pregnancy, but the study also showed a link between drinking and physical abnormalities if the mother drank during the second half of the first trimester.

During that critical time period, the fetus was much more likely to develop the physical abnormalities most common in fetal alcohol syndrome. Every drink that a woman consumed during weeks 8 to 13 of pregnancy increased the risk of an abnormally shaped upper lip, a smaller than normal head, and low birth weight. Each drink consumed was responsible for a 25% increase in lip abnormality, a 12% increase in head-size abnormality, and a 16% increase in the chance of low birth weight.   

In other time periods during pregnancy, the risk of physical abnormalities due to alcohol consumption was also apparent. Mothers who drank high amounts of alcohol during the second trimester were much more likely to deliver babies with physical abnormalities like misshapen eyes and lips and abnormal head size, all of which often suggest neurological problems will be present later in life as well. During the third trimester, the baby’s length was most affected by alcohol consumption.

The study did not determine the effects of alcohol on neurological development later in life, so future researchers also hope to tackle how drinking during pregnancy can affect a child’s development during school, when fetal alcohol syndrome symptoms become even more apparent.   

Overall, the study definitively showed that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome symptoms can develop even at the lowest levels of drinking, and this can make life much more difficult for a child who suffers from the syndrome.

Beyond the physical abnormalities of small head, abnormal upper lip, small eyes and decreased length upon birth, babies who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome can also present with heart defects, behavioral problems, mental retardation, slow growth, decreased muscle tone, poor coordination after birth, poor neurological development and even infant death. Later in life, the children can suffer from developmental problems in thinking, speech, movement and social skills.

Many women are unaware of pregnancy in the first trimester, and if unaware of the fetus developing inside of her, a mother-to-be could cause irreparable damage. It is therefore important for all prospective mothers to quit drinking alcohol before becoming pregnant.

If abstaining from alcohol is problematic for a woman due to alcohol addiction, it is advisable that she be on a birth control regimen. Any woman who suffers from alcohol addiction and wants to become pregnant would best serve her future child by attending an alcohol treatment program like the program at Vista Tao Renewal Center in New Mexico to break her addiction before becoming pregnant.

Alcohol treatment programs can help women develop the skills necessary to kick alcohol addiction before becoming pregnant. During her stay at an alcohol treatment program, a woman suffering from alcohol addiction can detoxify, work on the underlying emotional reasons for alcohol addiction, and learn the life skills that are necessary to avoid a relapse – all so that she may become a mother to the healthiest baby possible. Alcohol treatment centers really can assist people in reaching their dreams.

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