Light drinking by mothers during pregnancy does not affect children’s behaviour or cause mental impairment, and may help them in some ways, according to a new study.
Researchers examined data on 12,495 three-year-olds, looking at the mothers’ drinking patterns during pregnancy and assessing the behaviour and cognitive skills of their children.
The experts at University College London found that children born to mothers who drink lightly during pregnancy — one or two units per week or per occasion — were not at increased risk compared with children of mothers who did not drink.
Lead author Dr Yvonne Kelly, of UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, said: “The link between heavy drinking during pregnancy and consequent poor behavioural and cognitive outcomes in children is well established.
“However, very few studies have considered whether light drinking in pregnancy is a risk for behavioural and cognitive problems in children.
“Our research has found that light drinking by pregnant mothers does not increase the risk of behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits.
“Indeed, for some behavioural and cognitive outcomes children born to light drinkers were less likely to have problems compared to children of abstinent mothers, although children born to heavy drinkers were more likely to have problems compared to children of mothers who drank nothing whilst pregnant.”
The data, in the UK Millennium Cohort Study, shows boys born to mums who drank lightly were 40% less likely to have ‘conduct’ problems and 30% less likely to have hyperactivity.
Boys born to light drinkers also had higher scores on tests of vocabulary and whether they could identify colours, shapes, letters and numbers compared to those born to mothers who did not drink.
Girls born to light drinkers were 30% less likely to have emotional problems and peer problems compared with those born to abstainers, though this appeared to be at least partially linked to family and social backgrounds.
Dr Kelly said: “The reasons behind these findings might in part be because light drinkers tend to be more socially advantaged than abstainers, rather than being due to the physical benefits of low level alcohol consumption seen, for example, in heart disease.
“However, it may also be that light-drinking mothers tend to be more relaxed themselves and this contributes to better behavioural and cognitive outcomes in their children.”
The research team’s findings have just been published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.