What to Drink While Expecting: Study Says Moderate Booze OK

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Alcohol isn’t generally the first drink that moms-to-be reach for, but if they do, they may not be doing as much harm to their children as previously thought.

According to a British study, children born to mothers who drank moderately while pregnant did not show signs of balance problems when they were 10; trouble with balance is a good indicator of problems with brain development in utero, the authors say.

The researchers, who published their results in the journal BMJ Open, studied nearly 7,000 ten-year-olds enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children who were born between 1991 and 1992. The children were given three different balance tests, including walking on a balance beam and standing still on one leg with their eyes closed. Those whose mothers reported drinking three to seven alcoholic beverages a week during their 18th week of pregnancy were more likely to fall into the top 25% of performers on the balance exercises compared to those whose moms abstained.

(MORE: Light to Moderate Drinking in Pregnancy May Be Safe, Study Says)

These findings support those of a previous study out of Denmark that reported light to moderate drinking early in pregnancy was not associated with declines in intelligence, attention or self-control in children at age 5. But this study did caution that heavy drinking was linked to negative developmental effects.

Despite the fact that better balance is an indicator of healthy brain development in the womb, the current results don’t necessarily mean that it’s time to rethink the advice that pregnant women shouldn’t drink. Research has shown that drinking can cause physical deformities as well as behavioral and cognitive symptoms in babies, including fetal alcohol syndrome. The scientists in the UK study accounted for other factors that might explain the results of the balance test, including the mothers’ age, smoking and previous pregnancies, and they found that the moderate drinkers tended to have more education and more comfortable socioeconomic backgrounds. These environmental effects, they say, could explain the improved balance results among their children as the youngsters may have benefited from more education, physical activity training and other opportunities that made up for any potential cognitive deficits caused by the alcohol.

The researchers also say that the majority of the mothers in the study (70%) did not drink at all while expecting and only about 25% drank rarely to moderately. About 5% drank seven or more alcoholic beverages a week, and one in seven of these women regularly consumed four or more drinks in one sitting, which the scientists considered binge drinking.

(MORE: Study O.K.’s Light Drinking During Pregnancy. Too Good to Be True?)

Adding to the possibility that the children’s education and socioeconomic status were compensating for any potential harms from the alcohol, the scientists also studied women who possessed genes that prevented them enjoying alcohol as much. If alcohol had a positive effect on brain development and enhanced balance, these children would be expected to do worse on balance tests, but they performed as well as the other youngsters.

The study doesn’t suggest whether there is a safe level of alcohol consumption for pregnant women, so most experts say the current recommendation that moms-to-be avoid alcohol while expecting is still good advice; there’s no evidence yet that wine is good for the womb.