To drink or not to drink during pregnancy is a debated subject. Although high alcohol intakes during pregnancy have long been associated with complications such as learning difficulties and birth defects – with many women choose to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy – for those who wish to still allow themselves some alcohol, the advice around how much they can safely consume each week has remained hazy due to a lack of evidence on the subject. However, a recent study published by researchers at Bristol and Oxford universities indicates that drinking just a single glass of wine each week is all that it takes to potentially affect a baby’s developing brain whilst in the womb and lower their IQ.
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The study examined 4,167 mothers and their children and whether they had four of the genes responsible for determining the rate at which the body metabolises alcohol; the more of these genes an individual has, the longer it takes to break down alcohol, so its impact is greater. Whilst heavy drinkers were excluded from the study, the genes and IQ of the children of moderate drinkers who had a weekly alcohol intake of fewer than six units – an amount similar to three standard glasses of wine – was compared with those children whose mothers abstained from alcohol during pregnancy. At eight years of age, the children of moderate drinkers who had three or four of the tested genes – so were slower to process alcohol – had a lower IQ than those children with one or two of the genes; those with four of the genes typically had an IQ four points lower than those with one or two. Of the mothers who didn’t drink the IQ of their children was unaffected irrespective of how many of the alcohol-related genes they had.
This study shows that the exposure to any alcohol on a weekly basis prior to birth can impair brain development, so it is difficult to put a figure at all on what might be considered a safe alcohol intake during pregnancy. While the odd glass of wine during the nine months is unlikely to do any harm, the best advice for pregnant women is to err on the side of caution and avoid alcohol completely. It is obviously a matter for the women to decide, but what should be borne in mind is that a lower IQ may put their child at a disadvantage during the course of their lifetime, as it is associated with social disadvantage, poorer health and even lower life expectancy.
By Amy Millband