A study by the University of Nottingham found that even after taking other lifestyle and social factors into account – such as the mother’s own mental health, whether she smoked tobacco, used cannabis or other drugs during the pregnancy – binge drinking caused health problems for the child.
The work by the team, who examined data from more than 4,000 participants in the Children of the 90s study, builds on earlier research on the same children that found a link between binge drinking – defined as their mothers drinking four or more units of alcohol in a day on at least one occasion during the pregnancy – and their mental health when aged four and seven.
The women were asked about their drinking pattern at both 18 and 32 weeks of pregnancy and again when their child was aged five. At age 11, parents and teachers completed questionnaires on more than 4,000 participants about the children’s mental health. Information about academic performance on almost 7,000 participants was based on the results of the Key Stage 2 examinations taken in the final year at primary school.
One in four mothers reported a pattern of binge drinking at least once during pregnancy and more than half of these said they had done so once or twice in the month prior to being asked. The majority who said they had had a binge drinking session at 18 weeks also reported having done so again by 32 weeks.
The academics found that episodic binge pattern drinking was associated with lower academic scores and reported slightly higher levels of hyperactivity and inattention. On average, scores were about 1 point lower in the Key Stage 2 examinations, even after other key factors including both parents’ education had been taken into account.
Main author Professor Kapil Sayal, of The University of Nottingham, said: “Women who are pregnant or who are planning to become pregnant should be aware of the possible risks associated with episodes of heavier drinking during pregnancy, even if this only occurs on an occasional basis.
“The study’s findings highlight the need for clear policy messages about patterns of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, whereby women who choose to drink occasionally should avoid having several drinks in a day.
“The information was collected in 1991-1992 when attitudes towards drinking in pregnancy may have been different in the UK. As this was over 20 years ago, this may not necessarily reflect the current picture.”
The findings are published in 11 September 2014 edition of European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Sayal K, Heron J et al. Prenatal exposure to binge pattern of alcohol consumption: mental health and learning outcomes at age 11? 11 September 2014. Journal European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. DOI 10.1007/s00787-014-0599-7.