Although drinking during pregnancy has long been considered taboo, new research suggests that as many as one in 20 U.S. children may have health or behavioral problems related to alcohol exposure before birth.
The study, reported in the November print issue of Pediatrics, found that between 2.4 percent and 4.8 percent of children have some kind of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe end of the spectrum, and children with this condition have abnormal facial features, structural brain abnormalities, growth problems and behavioral issues. Children on the less severe end of the spectrum may have impairments in the ability to complete tasks required to do well in school or have behavioral issues, the study noted.
Researchers selected a nationally representative town in the Midwest for the study. The town had an average annual alcohol consumption rate about 14 percent higher than the rest of the United States. That translated into roughly a liter of alcohol more per person per year, according to the study authors. They identified first-graders who had a developmental problem or were below the 25th percentile for height, weight or head circumference. Then the researchers gave memory and thinking (“cognitive”) tests, as well as behavioral tests, to these children and to a comparison group of typically developing first-graders.
The researchers also assessed the children for the physical attributes of fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, which include small eye openings, a smooth upper lip, a thin red border to the upper lip and smaller heads.
They found that six to nine of every 1,000 children had fetal alcohol syndrome. And, between 11 and 17 per 1,000 children had partial fetal alcohol syndrome, according to the study. These numbers are higher than in previous research.
This study also identified factors that predicted a higher risk that a child would have an FASD. The longer it took a mother to learn she was pregnant, how frequently she drank three months before pregnancy, and the more alcohol the child’s father drank, the more likely it was that the child would have an FASD, the study found.