It’s a well-established fact that alcohol consumption during pregnancy can lead to serious disruption of fetal development and permanent health problems in newborn children. However, not many researchers have considered whether heavy drinking before pregnancy has any harmful impact on the subsequent health of a mother’s children. In a study published in July 2014 in the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, a group of Norwegian researchers explored this issue. They concluded that heavy drinking prior to pregnancy is associated with increased risks for a range of significant behavioral problems in toddlers.
Drinking and Pregnancy
Despite its common use as a recreational substance, alcohol is essentially poisonous to the human body. Within limits, adults can tolerate the poisonous effects of drinking and avoid experiencing any serious harm. However, developing children, who share their blood supplies with their mothers, have no such ability to tolerate the presence of alcohol. Even when consumed in amounts that would be judged as moderate or light in other circumstances, the substance can have a serious or severe disruptive effect on the fetal development process. Known short- and long-term consequences of fetal alcohol exposure include abnormally low weight at birth, altered function in several major organ systems, facially distorting birth defects, permanently reduced mental capacity, delayed development of language-related skills, impaired memory function and symptoms of hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention classically associated with the presence of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In the U.S., most women who drink at least temporarily suspend their alcohol intake while pregnant.
Public health officials define heavy drinking as a pattern of alcohol consumption that, among other things, substantially increases the odds that you will meet the criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism) at some point in your lifetime. Even if this pattern only includes one incident of excessive intake per month, your chances of receiving such a diagnosis rise by roughly 20 percent. Weekly excessive intake increases your chances by a far greater amount. Since men and women process alcohol differently, the definition of heavy drinking is gender-based. Men meet this definition when they consume more than four standard drinks in a single day, or consume more than 14 standard drinks in a single week. Women meet the definition for heavy drinking when they consume more than three drinks in a single day or more than seven drinks in a single week.
Impact of Pre-Pregnancy Heavy Drinking
In the study published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the University of Bergen and two other Norwegian institutions used data from a large-scale project called the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study to explore the impact that pre-pregnancy heavy drinking has on the health of a mother’s children. A total of 91,000 women took part in this project. In the 17th week of pregnancy, all of these women submitted information on their alcohol consumption patterns prior to getting pregnant. Later, 56,682 of the original participants responded to questionnaires about their children’s health at the age of 18 months. In addition, 46,756 of the participants responded to questionnaires about their children’s health at the age of 3.
The researchers concluded that the young children of the mothers who drank heavily prior to getting pregnant were significantly more likely to have notable behavioral problems. Examples of these problems included acts of aggression or violence, acts of defiance, a lack of regret for poor conduct, withdrawal from social situations and bouts of depression or anxiety. Previous research has shown that indications of behavioral difficulties in the earliest stages of childhood may predict continuing problems that linger even beyond adolescence.
The study’s authors note that their findings hold true even when alcohol consumption during pregnancy or after pregnancy is taken into consideration. They believe that the impact of pre-pregnancy heavy drinking is not chemical. Instead, it appears that women who drink heavily before pregnancy have a greater tendency to have mental health issues and other problems that have a lasting impact on the health of their children. In fact, the tendency to drink heavily may stem in part from the preexisting presence of anxiety, ADHD or other mental health concerns. The authors believe that their findings indicate that the families of women who drink heavily before pregnancy may need assistance to keep their young children mentally healthy.