Small Amounts Of Alcohol Still Affect Fetuses, Study Shows

While it’s been long understood that drinking excess amounts of alcohol during pregnancy is a big no-no, a relatively small group of obstetricians have said it’s fine to have an occasional glass of wine every once in a while. Still, most medical experts agree that there is no safe amount or time for an expectant mother to consume alcohol. And this advice might have more merit now that a new study has found — even if it’s a small amount of alcohol — that drinking while pregnant may affect a baby’s facial features, including the shape of their eyes, nose, and lips.

According to the study published in JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, researchers from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia analyzed 3-D images of the heads and faces of 415 children, who were all around 1 year old. The images, which detailed almost 70,000 points on each baby’s face, showed subtle differences — such as a slightly shorter and upturned nose — in the children whose mothers who had drunk and those who had abstained from alcohol. The strongest association to these differences was with mothers who drank at moderate levels in during their first trimester.

The differences were "less than 2mm and not visible to the naked eye, the biggest structural impact was concentrated in the mid-face, nose, lips and eyes," according to Herald Sun, an Australian newspaper.

"The results are telling us that there is some effect, albeit fairly subtle,” Jane Halliday, lead researcher of the study, told New Scientist. She also added that because an infant's face tends to change a lot during the first two years of life, some of these effects might not be long lasting.

Although these results show a link to alcohol, pregnant women don't need to be too concerned if they've had a little to drink before they even knew they were expecting. As Halliday told New Scientist, the current research didn't identify any problems "to worry about." But it's also not clear at this point if these subtle differences had any impact on brain development — which is the case when maternal drinking leads to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

In addition to a mother drinking while pregnant, a child with FAS is diagnosed by showing a characteristic pattern of facial abnormalities — such as small eye openings, a short up-turned nose, and a smooth philtrum over the upper lip — growth retardation, and brain damage, which is often defined by intellectual difficulties or behavioral problems, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

While researchers plan to follow these children's development, they concur that prenatal alcohol exposure, even at low levels, can affect a fetus.

Some women don't know they're pregnant for months and continue to live their normal lifestyles — and researchers are on a mission to determine just how harmful alcohol can be during that time-frame; This research provides a little insight.

In the meantime, the old-time medical advice still stands: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics all state that alcohol shouldn't be consumed at all during pregnancy — no matter how small the amount.