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Light drinking in pregnancy 'does not harm child'

Women who drink one or two units of alcohol per week do not put their baby at any greater risk of behavioural problems or cognitive impairment compared with children of abstinent mothers, research has concluded.

The study, based on data from more than 12,000 three-year old children, shows that boys born to mothers who drank lightly were 40 per cent less likely to have ‘conduct' problems and 30 per cent less likely to have hyperactivity.

Boys born to light drinkers also had higher scores on tests of vocabulary and whether they could identify colours, shapes, letters and numbers compared to those born to abstainers. Both findings existed even when a range of family and socioeconomic factors were taken into account.

Girls born to light drinkers were 30 per cent less likely to have emotional symptoms and peer problems compared with those born to abstainers, although this appeared partially explained by family and social backgrounds.

The Department of Health issued guidance last year that expectant mothers should abstain completely from alcohol and NICE followed suit in March. However, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has said there was no evidence that a couple of units once or twice a week would do any harm to the baby.

Author Dr Yvonne Kelly from the department of Epidemiology & Public Health at University College London, said the the link between heavy drinking during pregnancy and consequent poor behavioural and cognitive outcomes in children was well established, but the result of light drinking was less well known.

She said: 'Our research has found that light drinking by pregnant mothers does not increase the risk of behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits. Indeed, for some behavioural and cognitive outcomes children born to light drinkers were less likely to have problems compared to children of abstinent mothers, although children born to heavy drinkers were more likely to have problems compared to children of mothers who drank nothing whilst pregnant.'

Dr Kelly continued: 'The reasons behind these findings might in part be because light drinkers tend to be more socially advantaged than abstainers, rather than being due to the physical benefits of low level alcohol consumption seen, for example, in heart disease. However, it may also be that light-drinking mothers tend to be more relaxed themselves and this contributes to better behavioural and cognitive outcomes in their children.'

The study was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

No evidence that one or two units a week harms the child's development

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