Too Much Alcohol, Too Little Growth

Alcohol during pregnancy leads to slower growth in children

(RxWiki News) The risks related to drinking during pregnancy are not limited to fetal alcohol syndrome. A baby's exposure to alcohol before birth can also mean poor growth.

A recent study has found that being exposed to alcohol while growing in a mother's womb can lead to slower growth and slower healthy weight gain in children at least up until they are 9 years old.

"Avoid drinking any alcohol while pregnant."

The study, led in part by R. Colin Carter, MD, a pediatrics instructor at Harvard Medical School, followed two somewhat small groups of pregnant women and their children for nine years.

One group was composed of 85 women defined as "heavy drinking" because they had two or more drinks a day or four or more drinks per occasion while pregnant.

The other group included 63 women who either abstained from alcohol altogether or were light drinkers, which meant they drank less than one drink a day and never binge-drank.

The researchers collected demographic information on the women as well as their histories regarding alcohol use, smoking and drug use.

After the women's children were born, the researchers measured the children's length, weight and head circumference at 6.5 months old, 12 months old, 5 years old and 9 years old.

They found that the children of the heavy drinkers had smaller weight, height and head circumference measurements than the children of the light or non-drinking women - even up until the children were 9 years old.

If the children had an iron deficiency while they were babies - which is not uncommon, Dr. Carter noted - the growth restrictions were greater. Iron deficiency also appeared to be an effect of exposure to alcohol in the womb even if the mother is not deficient in iron, Dr. Carter said.

Iron deficiency or poor access to food at 5 years old did not influence the growth restrictions.

The children who had been most affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol - those with partial or total fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) - also had leaner body compositions compared to the children without FAS.

"The leaner body composition seen in children with FAS or partial FAS could be attributable to decreased nutritional intake (for example, total energy or protein), increased metabolic needs or a deficit in nutrient utilization in alcohol-exposed children," Dr. Carter said.

"It is not clear whether the low body fat seen in these most affected children might [be addressed by] interventions that bolster nutrition, which are effective in other diseases such as cystic fibrosis, metabolic disorders and intestinal diseases," he said.

According to Dr. Carter, the smaller measurements of head circumference can indicate slower brain growth, which might mean slower or poorer brain development.

"These effects may be detrimental to the children as growth deficits have been shown to be related to other health problems, such as lower IQ," he said.

The overall take-home message, he said, is not to drink during pregnancy.

"Our findings show that heavy drinking during pregnancy leads to marked growth restrictions at birth and that these effects persist through childhood," he said. "Heavy drinking during pregnancy also leads to a delay in weight gain in infancy. The effects of heavy drinking during pregnancy on growth are markedly worse if the child has iron deficiency anemia during infancy."

The study was published August 15 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research and will appear in the November issue.

The research was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Minority Health and the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research in Cape Town. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 13, 2012