Two or three drinks while pregnant could damage the growth of a baby’s internal organs and impact their psychological development, according to a Manchester study.
According to University of Manchester research, women who drink alcohol at moderate to heavy levels in the early stages of their pregnancy risk damaging the growth of cells in their placenta.
The research investigated the effect of alcohol and how its major toxic breakdown product affected the growth of a baby in the first few weeks of pregnancy.
While cell growth was stunted at roughly two to three drinks, alcohol at very low concentrations didn’t have any effect on growth or function.
Scientists found that alcohol also reduced the transport of taurine – which is vital for brain growth – from the mother to the baby via the placenta.
Reduced taurine has been shown to have negative effects on behaviour, explaining why neurological symptoms are seen in children of alcoholic mothers.
Sylvia Lui, from the Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre based The University of Manchester said: “Alcohol is known to be toxic at high levels, but these results show that levels easily achieved in a normal population have effects on the placenta.
“Placental growth is reduced in comparison to non-exposed placentas, suggesting that in the long-term, there could be consequences to how much support the infant receives from the placenta during the rest of the after pregnancy.”
According to Professor John Aplin, a Professor of Reproductive Biomedicine at the University, women who are trying to conceive should not drink, as the damage caused by alcohol can happen very early on in pregnancy, sometimes before a woman knows she is pregnant.
Jane Brewin, Chief Executive of baby charity Tommy’s, said: “It can often be a few weeks before a woman discovers she’s pregnant, and this research show that moderate drinking during those vital first weeks can have a big impact on the development of the baby.
“Many pregnancies are unplanned, but for those actively planning a family this research raises questions about whether women should consider their alcohol intake even before they fall pregnant.”
Doctor Clare Tower, a consultant obstetrician at Saint Mary’s Hospital, said the public need to be educated on how much alcohol can be safely consumed while pregnant.
She said: “Though low levels of alcohol did not have a harmful effect, moderate to high levels were damaging. UK studies show that there is still a lot of confusion in the perception of what alcohol ‘units’ are, as well as a lack of accurate self-monitoring of drinking levels.”
The research was carried out on 15 placentas in a laboratory environment in Manchester.
Images courtesy of Andrew Vargas, via WikiCommons, with thanks.