It’s not just how much alcohol you drink in pregnancy, it’s when you drink it

Comprehensive new study reveals how the timing of a mum's alcohol consumption can affect how her unborn baby grows

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It seems that when you drink in pregnancy has a role to play in the kind of damage it may do, suggests research.

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The most serious physical problems associated with foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) appear to be caused by mums’ drinking in the second half of the first trimester, according to the new study.

Results of this 28-year study, which involved 992 pregnancies, found that the risk of facial abnormalities were increased if the mum drank in the second half of her first trimester – for example, the risk of cleft palate went up 25% and microphephaly (a misshapen head) went up 12%. The risk of a low birth weight increased 16% and risk of reduced birth length increased 18%.

“This paper clearly illustrates that drinking alcohol, especially binge drinking, during the first 7 to 12 weeks of gestation is associated with four of the most important facial feature characteristic of FAS,” explained Philip A May, research professor at the University of North Carolina.

The researchers were quick to add that this did not mean drinking is safe in the first six weeks of pregnancy, though often women are unaware they’re pregnant at this time.

“We were only able to include women who gave birth to live infants,” explained Haruna Sawada Feldman, who worked on the study. “Therefore, we did not include women who may have had miscarriages or stillbirths. It’s important to know that alcohol-exposed infants who would have exhibited alcohol-related minor malformations might also be more likely to be lost to miscarriage following exposure during the first six-week window.”

Haruna added that women should still be advised to avoid alcohol at all stages of pregnancy.

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