Low-level drinking during pregnancy influences babies' facial development

June 7, 2017
Low-level drinking during pregnancy influences babies’ facial development

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy at low levels – even the occasional drink – can subtly influence the way a baby's face is formed in the womb, researchers from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute have found.

Researchers studied 415 babies who had 3D photographs of their faces taken at age one. Mothers were asked about their drinking habits before and throughout their pregnancies.

"We know that alcohol use in pregnancy contributes to how the face is formed in the womb, said one of the study's lead authors, Evi Muggli. "We found when analysing the detailed images in our study, that any alcohol in pregnancy, even low amounts can subtly influence facial development."

The findings reinforce the message that for who are pregnant, planning a pregnancy, or at risk of getting pregnant, avoiding alcohol is the best option, MCRI researchers Professor Jane Halliday and Ms Muggli said.

The differences between children exposed or not to alcohol were analysed in collaboration with the Medical Imaging Research Centre at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

"We used a sophisticated 3D facial analysis technique, mapping something like 7,000 individual dot points on the face," co-lead author, Harry Matthews said.

The researchers emphasised the facial features observed were subtle and not visible to the naked eye, being less than 2mm. However, using the 3D facial analysis, the researchers did observe small changes to the mid-face – the nose, lips and eyes – of babies who were exposed to any amount of alcohol from the first trimester of pregnancy.

The finding of a low level of alcohol contributing the development of the face raises questions about the possible impact upon brain development and this is the subject of further research.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, emerged from a longitudinal cohort study of the impact of on the child. AQUA (Asking Questions about Alcohol in Pregnancy) is a study of 1570 Victorian women with comprehensive data around prenatal alcohol exposure.

 "We were surprised to see that these comparatively low levels of alcohol do have a subtle impact and our findings support national recommendations to abstain from in pregnancy," chief investigator Prof Jane Halliday said.

Prof Halliday said that 30 to 40 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned and many women drank alcohol in that period before knowing they were pregnant. She said the AQUA study aims to improve the messages provided to women of childbearing age about risks of drinking during pregnancy.

Study co-author and Professor in Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Sydney, Elizabeth Elliott said: "The information from our study is particularly important. It affirms my need to advise women to avoid alcohol during pregnancy and gives me new evidence to support that advice."

The study's researchers are now investigating children's neurodevelopment as they get older and plan to follow the children up at school age.

Advice for mums-to-be

  • The safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all if you are trying to conceive, could conceive or are already pregnant.
  • If you did consume alcohol before you knew it was best to avoid it, the risk of your baby being harmed is very low.
  • Talk to your GP, obstetrician or midwife about any concerns you may have.

Key Messages

  • Drinking alcohol during pregnancy at low levels can subtly influence the way a baby's face is formed in the womb.
  • Researchers studied 415 babies who had 3D photographs of their faces taken at age one year.
  • Mothers were asked about their drinking habits before and throughout their pregnancies.
  • We saw an association between facial shape and prenatal alcohol exposure even if mothers only consumed alcohol in the first trimester.
  • The findings reinforce the message that for women who are or may become pregnant, avoiding alcohol is the best option.
  • This does not mean that the unborn baby is harmed if the mother has consumed some alcohol in pregnancy. There are many other factors that contribute to the baby's healthy development.
  • We observed subtle changes to the mid-face – the nose, lips and eyes – of babies who were exposed to any amount of alcohol in the first trimester of pregnancy.
  • The changes observed are less than 2mm at most and are not visible to the . These children would not be recognised to appear different from their families.
  • Using a technique developed by experts collaborating from Belgium, sophisticated 3D facial analysis measured almost 70,000 individual dot points on the faces.
  • The finding of a low level of alcohol contributing to the development of the face raises questions about the possible impact upon brain development and this is the subject of further research.
  • The overall AQUA study – a study of more than 1500 women with data on prenatal exposure - aims to improve messages provided to women about drinking during

Explore further: Norwegian women drink least while pregnant, British women drink most

Related Stories

Norwegian women drink least while pregnant, British women drink most

April 12, 2017
A study among over 7000 women in 11 European countries shows the proportion of women in Europe who drink alcohol when they know they are pregnant is lowest in Norway and highest in the UK. The countries with the highest proportion ...

Drinking alcohol while pregnant is common in UK, Ireland, and Australasia

July 6, 2015
Drinking alcohol while pregnant is common, ranging from 20% to 80% among those questioned in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, reveals a study of almost 18,000 women published in the online journal BMJ Open.

Early pregnancy awareness may be more effective than promoting alcohol abstinence

March 9, 2017
The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention update recommending that women who are pregnant or could become pregnant abstain from alcohol use prompted a Vanderbilt University Medical Center professor of Obstetrics ...

Millions of pregnant women put their babies at risk with alcohol: CDC

February 2, 2016
(HealthDay)—Drinking before and during pregnancy can cause lifelong physical, behavioral and mental problems for a child. Yet more than 3 million U.S. women risk exposing their baby to alcohol, federal health officials ...

No amount of alcohol safe during pregnancy, doctors say

October 19, 2015
(HealthDay)—While some studies have hinted that a little alcohol might be harmless during pregnancy, a leading U.S. pediatricians' group has issued a new warning that no amount of drinking is safe while pregnant.

One in 10 pregnant women drink alcohol in US

September 25, 2015
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy puts infants at risk of developmental problems and brain damage, but one in 10 US women say they drink while pregnant, US health authorities said Thursday.

Recommended for you

Expert: Be concerned about how apps collect, share health data

October 20, 2017
As of 2016 there were more than 165,000 health and wellness apps available though the Apple App Store alone. According to Rice University medical media expert Kirsten Ostherr, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates ...

Three million Americans carry loaded handguns daily, study finds

October 19, 2017
An estimated 3 million adult American handgun owners carry a firearm loaded and on their person on a daily basis, and 9 million do so on a monthly basis, new research indicates. The vast majority cited protection as their ...

More teens than ever aren't getting enough sleep

October 19, 2017
If you're a young person who can't seem to get enough sleep, you're not alone: A new study led by San Diego State University Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge finds that adolescents today are sleeping fewer hours per night ...

Across Asia, liver cancer is linked to herbal remedies: study

October 18, 2017
Researchers have uncovered widespread evidence of a link between traditional Chinese herbal remedies and liver cancer across Asia, a study said Wednesday.

Eating better throughout adult years improves physical fitness in old age, suggests study

October 18, 2017
People who have a healthier diet throughout their adult lives are more likely to be stronger and fitter in older age than those who don't, according to a new study led by the University of Southampton.

Global calcium consumption appears low, especially in Asia

October 18, 2017
Daily calcium intake among adults appears to vary quite widely around the world in distinct regional patterns, according to a new systematic review of research data ahead of World Osteoporosis Day on Friday, Oct. 20.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.