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Dangers of Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy

For most of human history, little was known about the effects of alcohol consumption on fetal and child development.

That began to change in 1973 with the publication of Recognition of the fetal alcohol syndrome in early infancy in the journal Lancet.

That paper coined the term “fetal alcohol syndrome,” providing for the first time the diagnostic criteria for the disorder, describing in detail the consistent pattern of malformations among children of the mothers with significant prenatal alcohol intake.

Since that paper was published, our understanding of fetal alcohol syndrome has grown considerably. We now know symptoms can include:

New research from the University of Sidney (Australia), published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, makes it clear the harm goes even further.

This study, looking at 9,719 children (the largest such study ever conducted), found that “even low levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have an impact on a child's brain development and is associated with greater psychological and behavioral problems in youth including anxiety, depression and poor attention.”

“Low levels of drinking” in the study are defined as one to two drinks per occasion with a maximum of six drinks per week.

The study authors found that “children who were exposed to low levels of alcohol in-utero at any time during pregnancy experienced more psychological/emotional problems (including anxiety, depression and being withdrawn) and behavioral problems (including poor attention and being impulsive) than unexposed children. There was a 25 percent increased likelihood of an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis in children who were exposed to slightly heavier levels of alcohol (approximately 36 drinks) in the first 6-7 weeks of pregnancy. Heavier alcohol use during early pregnancy was also associated with rule-breaking behavior and aggression, with a 30 percent higher risk of the child being diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder than unexposed youth.”

The researchers also found meaningful differences in brain volume and surface area among the exposed children, which likely contributes to psychological and behavioral problems.

According to Briana Lees, the lead author on the study, "Children experienced negative effects even if they were only exposed to low levels of alcohol during very early pregnancy (approximately 16 drinks in the first six to seven weeks) and then the mother stopped drinking. The difficulty is many women don't know they are pregnant at that early stage.”

If you are struggling with an addiction to alcohol and need help in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Florida, or Southern Maine, the recovery teams at Aware Recovery Care are here to help. Our unique model of care is giving clients a significantly better chance of recovery when compared to traditional inpatient rehab care. To learn contact one of our Recovery Specialists.


[i] Briana Lees, Louise Mewton, Joanna Jacobus, Emilio A. Valadez, Lexine A. Stapinski, Maree Teesson, Susan F. Tapert, Lindsay M. Squeglia. Association of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure With Psychological, Behavioral, and Neurodevelopmental Outcomes in Children From the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2020

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