Expectant mothers should be advised not to drink alcohol, as this may pose health risks to the foetus, argues an editorial in this week's BMJ.
While the UK Department of Health advises that women can safely drink one or two units of alcohol per week, a team of psychiatrists in London highlight several studies which cast doubt on the guidance.
The authors looked at reports into foetal alcohol syndrome, a condition developed by some babies exposed to alcohol in the womb, resulting in stunted growth, facial abnormalities and neurocognitive deficits (brain disorders). An overarching foetal alcohol spectrum disorder - traceable to the pregnant mother's alcohol consumption say the authors - has also been identified.
Both the syndrome and disorder cause a wide range of behavioural disorders, they argue, including hyperactivity, problems with mental organisation, and difficulties in understanding the consequences of one's behaviour. Symptoms may also overlap with conditions such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Previously the syndrome was thought to be caused by mothers drinking heavily in pregnancy. But the authors argue that recent studies suggest that far less exposure to alcohol in the womb may put babies at risk – as little as one drink per week in one study. Individual differences in alcohol metabolism may protect most women when drinking small quantities, add the team, but it is currently impossible to predict who is at risk and who is not.
More research is needed to find out just how much alcohol may be damaging to a foetus, argue the authors. In the interim, the only safe message for expectant mothers is to abstain from alcohol, they conclude.
Materials provided by British Medical Journal. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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