Reasearch Suggests Small Amounts Of Alcohol in Pregnancy May Affect Baby’s Face

researchers find even a little bit of alcohol may change a baby's faceResearch suggests that even small amounts of alcohol while pregnant may change the face of a baby developing in utero. While practically undetectable, the question remains: Do you or don’t you while pregnant?

In a 2017 study, lead researcher Jane Halliday with the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Victoria, Australia, said that they’ve found that small changes in a child’s facial shape development could be the result of small amounts of alcohol ingested while her mother was pregnant.

Halliday said that these subtle changes were in the shape of eyes, nose and lips, and that they are not sure if those small changes correlate to any differences in their development otherwise. They believe more research on these children as they grow may shed light on that.

Related: Pregnancy Tests in Bar Bathrooms Aim to Reduce Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Rates

To find out whether low levels of alcohol consumption affected the development of a pregnant woman’s child, the team looked at 1570 pregnant women throughout their gestation and births of their children. They surveyed the women and found that 27 percent said they drank at least small amounts of alcohol, even when pregnant.

When the children born of the study were one year old, the research team took pictures of 415 babies using multiple cameras and angles. Using photographic computer software, Halliday’s team was able to compile 3D photographs that gave detailed information of about 70,000 points on the babies’ faces. They looked at subtle differences in the faces of babies whose mothers drank small amounts of alcohol compared to those who did not, and found that the babies of mothers who drank had slightly shorter, more up-turned noses.

The changes were not visible to the naked eye, and were extremely subtle. According to Halliday, the subtlety of the differences may not even be life-lasting, as a baby’s face changes so drastically in the first two years of life.

So should women who have a little drink while pregnant worry?

According to Halliday, they should not. She says that at this stage of research, there are no problems that have been identified, and even if alcohol does seem to show an effect, there are many other factors that have an influence on a baby’s health and development.

Not all babies that are exposed to alcohol, even those whose mothers drink excessive amounts, have any defects. The Centers for Disease Control states that no amount of alcohol has been deemed safe to drink at any stage of pregnancy. Alcohol travels to the baby’s bloodstream through the umbilical cord and can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Drinking alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy can cause the baby to have abnormal facial features. Growth and central nervous system problems (e.g., low birth weight, behavioral problems) can occur from drinking alcohol anytime during pregnancy. The baby’s brain is developing throughout pregnancy and can be affected by exposure to alcohol at any time,” the CDC says.

Related: New AAP Study: No Amount of Alcohol Safe During Pregnancy

She hopes that the 3D photography that was used for this research may be able to more easily and accurately diagnose mild cases of fetal alcohol disorder in babies. This may help provide evidence of excessive alcohol exposure in children who have other signs of a behavioral disorder with no known exposure to alcohol.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a worldwide problem and one often misdiagnosed or not recognized. This photography and the research findings from this report may be able to help identify children more easily in order to provide them with the help they need.

The most common symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome are not only physical–they can also be developmental, behavioral, and neurological. Some of the physical defects, which are not always present in terms of appearance according to the Mayo Clinic include:

  • Distinctive facial features, including small eyes, an exceptionally thin upper lip, a short, upturned nose, and a smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip
  • Deformities of joints, limbs and fingers
  • Slow physical growth before and after birth
  • Vision difficulties or hearing problems
  • Small head circumference and brain size
  • Heart defects and problems with kidneys and bones

Some of the behavioral, social, and emotional defects from fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Poor coordination or balance
  • Intellectual disability, learning disorders and delayed development
  • Poor memory
  • Trouble with attention and with processing information
  • Difficulty with reasoning and problem-solving
  • Difficulty identifying consequences of choices
  • Poor judgment skills
  • Jitteriness or hyperactivity
  • Rapidly changing moods
  • Difficulty in school
  • Trouble getting along with others
  • Poor social skills
  • Trouble adapting to change or switching from one task to another
  • Problems with behavior and impulse control
  • Poor concept of time
  • Problems staying on task
  • Difficulty planning or working toward a goal

If you find yourself missing out on your evening glass of wine or joining friends in a social cocktail hour, there are plenty of safe alternatives that are healthier for you and your baby- both during and after pregnancy. Some of these alternatives include:

  • Sparkling water like Bubly or La Croix
  • Virgin cocktail drinks
  • Fruit juice
  • Sparkling juice

However, if you find yourself having difficulty avoiding alcohol, or you know someone who is having difficulty even during pregnancy, you may want to consider seeking outside help such as therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous, or a local out-patient rehabilitation center that can help get your behaviors under control before it harms your unborn child.

If you were consuming alcohol on a regular basis before you were pregnant, consult your physician right away so they can assess your child’s risk for fetal alcohol syndrome. If you are planning to become pregnant, it is advised that you stop consuming alcohol prior to getting pregnant, if possible.

It is unknown what may protect babies who have no known effects of excessive amounts of alcohol exposure while growing in utero. The research completed by Halliday is a stepping stone to further research on the effects of alcohol on a growing baby in utero. Researchers suggest that not drinking alcohol once your pregnancy is known could be the safest way to prevent any issues.

Image: chungyam/Shutterstock

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