Even Light Drinking During Pregnancy Can Change Your Baby's Face

By Britni de la Cretaz 06/12/17

A new study examined the impact of drinking on fetuses in-utero. 

pregnant woman holding a glass of red wine.

Doctors and researchers have typically disagreed about the various degrees of safety or risk when it comes to drinking alcohol during pregnancy. However, researchers in Australia say they have evidence that supports the belief that any alcohol exposure during pregnancy, even in small amounts, can have an effect on the fetus.

According to STAT News, researchers analyzed 3-D images of 415 children’s faces and heads around their first birthday and found that there were facial differences in the areas of the face where babies with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) show effects, as well as something called mid-facial hypoplasia—when the center of the face develops more slowly than the eyes, forehead, and lower jaw—which is also found in FAS babies.

The researchers note that 80% of the babies in the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, had been exposed to alcohol in utero, even if it was in small doses or during the first trimester before someone knew they were pregnant. Previous research has identified the first trimester as the most dangerous for in-utero alcohol exposure. All of the babies studied were white, but researchers are in the process of conducting a similar analysis of Aboriginal Australian babies. 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Academy of Pediatrics all agree that no alcohol should be consumed during pregnancy. (However, in a survey, 40% of OB-GYNs said that drinking some alcohol during pregnancy was okay.)

The researchers believe their results confirm this, writing, “Prenatal alcohol exposure, even at low levels, can influence craniofacial development. Although the clinical significance of these findings is yet to be determined, they support the conclusion that for women who are or may become pregnant, avoiding alcohol is the safest option.”

It is worth noting that almost none of the overall changes were statistically significant, STAT noted, though that didn’t stop researchers and advocates from drawing conclusions. One study last year found that even four glasses of wine during a pregnancy could increase the risk of alcoholism in future generations, and a study earlier this year found that binge drinking by women who were not currently pregnant could have adverse effects on future pregnancies—so while much of this research is important, it’s also clear that it’s not possible to avoid all risk factors completely.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.