Light drinking in pregnancy does not harm babies, new evidence suggests

17 April 2013

Light drinking during pregnancy does not affect a child’s behavioural or mental development, according to new research using data from the Millennium Cohort Study.

Researchers from University College London looked at the social and emotional behaviour of 10,534 seven-year-olds, as well as their reading, maths and spatial skills.

They found that children born to mothers who drank lightly during pregnancy (up to two units of alcohol a week) had slightly better reading and spatial skills than those born to mothers who did not drink while pregnant. They also had fewer behavioural problems, such as hyperactivity or short attention spans.

However, these differences largely disappeared after other socio-economic and cultural factors were taken into account, although there remained a slight gap in the results for boys.

Professor Yvonne Kelly, co-author of the study, stressed that the findings do not suggest light drinking during pregnancy is beneficial.

“There appears to be no increased risk of negative impacts of light drinking in pregnancy on behavioural or cognitive development in seven-year-old children,” she explained. “While we have followed these children for the first seven years of their lives, further research is needed to detect whether any adverse effects of low levels of alcohol consumption in pregnancy emerge later in childhood. We need to understand more about how children’s environments influence their behavioural and intellectual development.”

UK government guidelines advise pregnant women to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy, but to consume no more than two units a week if they do drink. A unit of alcohol is half a pint of lager or a single measure of spirits.

Fifty-seven per cent of the mothers in the study said they abstained from drinking during pregnancy, while 23 per cent drank lightly and 7 per cent drank more whilst pregnant. Thirteen per cent said they never drank at all.

Read the full report

Light drinking versus abstinence in pregnancy – behavioural and cognitive outcomes in 7-year-old children: a longitudinal cohort study, by Y. Kelly, M. Iacovou, M.A. Quigley, R. Gray, D. Wolke, J. Kelly and A. Sacker, was published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology on 17 April 2013.

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