Drinking dangers ... new research suggests there's more to fetal alcohol syndrome than previously thought.
Damage caused to unborn children as a result of maternal drinking in pregnancy is more varied than previously believed.
While most children of women who drink heavily during pregnancy don't exhibit the typical visible symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), the number of those with impairment to the central nervous system is alarming, according to a recent report in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
Central nervous system problems occurred with 44 percent of the children of drinking mothers, compared with 14 percent of other children
In the initial investigation, a team from the US National Institutes of Health selected 101 pregnant women in Chile. All the women said they had consumed at least four drinks every day.
Another 101 women who had abstained completely were used as a control while all the children were observed by doctors up to the age of eight and a half. The doctors weren't told which mothers were the drinkers or non-drinkers.
Four-fifths of the drinking women gave birth to children with at least one anomaly. Central nervous system problems occurred with 44 percent of the children, compared with 14 percent for the children of abstaining mothers.
Children exposed to large quantities of alcohol in the womb also exhibited behavioural problems much more often than other children, and had more problems with learning and language.
Observable symptoms of FAS, such as smaller head measurements, a flat appearance to the centre of the face and a narrow upper lip, were found less often than expected. About 17 percent of the children of drinking mums had these facial characteristics, while the figure dropped to 1 percent with the abstaining mothers.
Binge drinking, defined as more than 60g of alcohol a day, was seen by the researchers as particularly harmful.
"Our study shows that binge drinking represents a greater risk factor, even if the woman in any case drinks large quantities of alcohol every day," one of the team leaders, Edward Riley, said.
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