Children born to mothers who drink even small amounts of alcohol early in pregnancy are shorter and weigh less at age 14 than children born to mothers who abstain, a study says.
The U.S. government has long said that no amount of alcohol is safe for a pregnant woman to drink. University of Pittsburgh researcher Nancy Day, the study's principal investigator, said her study reinforces that.
"The message should be that women should not drink at all during pregnancy," Day said Wednesday.
The deficiencies found in the study are slight and fall within normal height and weight ranges, Day said, but were still surprising. The differences also were statistically significant, meaning they were not a matter of chance.
"I had actually thought that the growth deficits would go away after puberty," said Day, whose research is reported in the October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Day found that even light drinking about 1 1/2 drinks a week (about a half liter of beer or a quarter liter of wine) had measurable effects on children years later.
At age 14, children born to women who were light drinkers in their first trimester weighed about 3 pounds less than children born to abstainers and children born to heavy drinkers weighed up to 16 pounds less than children born to abstainers.
Since 1982, Day has been studying the effects of alcohol on 565 children whose mothers drank, tracking their progress at various ages. At age 14, physical measurements of the children were studied. Day plans to continue tracking the children into early adulthood and will look at alcohol's cognitive effect.
Dr. Sandra Jacobson, a psychiatrist at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the study was well-controlled and its findings significant. She is conducting a similar study.
"What's interesting here is the women are not alcoholic and not heavy drinkers and you still can detect the effects of alcohol on their children" so many years after birth, Jacobson said. "The concern is, did it also affect any of the neurobehavioral development of the child?"
Throughout the study, women reduced the amount of alcohol that they drank. By the third trimester, only 4 percent of the study participants said they continued to have one or more drinks a day.
"The longer we study light to moderate use of alcohol during pregnancy, the more evidence we find of an impact at these lower levels of consumption," said Dr. Louise Floyd of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.