Even One-Off Binge Drinking in Pregnancy Affects Child’s Mental Health

Binge drinking is a form of excessive alcohol intake marked by rapid consumption that leads to legal intoxication. Current evidence indicates that pregnant women who participate in this form of drinking can seriously alter the brain development of their unborn children. In a study published in September 2014 in the journal European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, a team of British and Australian researchers investigated the negative impact that even a single episode of binge drinking during pregnancy can have on the mental health outcomes of children 11 years later.

Binge Drinking

In the U.S., the generally accepted public health standard for binge drinking requires the consumption of enough alcohol to get drunk in two hours. Women process alcohol more slowly than men, even when they have equal body weights; this means women must consume less alcohol than men before crossing the alcohol binging threshold. On average, it takes four standard servings of alcohol to produce drunkenness in a woman in two hours or less (versus five or more servings for men). Apart from any impact on pregnancy, known risks related to binge drinking include higher chances of getting involved in a car accident, higher chances of developing potentially fatal alcohol poisoning, higher chances of being exposed to purposeful physical attacks and higher chances of being exposed to sexual attacks. In addition, anyone who binges on alcohol at least once a month has substantially increased odds of eventually meeting the requirements for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse/alcoholism (i.e., alcohol use disorder).

Alcohol Binging and Pregnancy

During pregnancy, any amount of alcohol consumption can disrupt fetal development. However, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports, binge drinking is especially risky for pregnant women since it heavily increases the level of alcohol flowing through the bloodstream from mother to developing child. Unfortunately, some of the most damaging impacts associated with binge drinking can occur in the early stages of pregnancy before an expectant mother is even aware of her condition. Additional periods of increased susceptibility also occur at other stages of pregnancy. Possible brain-related consequences of alcohol binging include a substantial reduction in a newborn’s brain size, malformation of the pathways that connect various parts of the brain and damage to the nerve cells that populate any given brain area. Some of the effects of binge drinking exposure may be obvious at birth; however, other effects may only manifest at a much later time.

Impact on Children’s Mental Health

In the study published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers from six British institutions and Australia’s University of Queensland used information from a large-scale, long-term project called the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to gauge the impact that binge drinking in pregnancy has on the mental health outcomes of children at age 11. A total of 6,939 children born to 4,610 women took part in this project. Although the study was not conducted in the U.S., the researchers used a standard for women’s alcohol binging that closely approximates the standard used in America (four or more drinks per day vs. four or more drinks in two hours or less).

After accounting for the potential influences of other factors that can affect children’s mental health, the researchers concluded that even a single episode of binge drinking during pregnancy can lead to notable mental health problems in both boys and girls. Problems found in 11-year-old girls exposed to binge drinking in the womb include increased rates of the hyperactivity and inattention that characterize attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and diminished classroom performance. Eleven-year-old boys exposed to binge drinking in the womb also experience diminished classroom performance in comparison to their peers unaffected by prenatal alcohol exposure.

The study’s authors and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism note that a woman who binge drinks during pregnancy may not consume alcohol on a regular basis. Such a sporadic pattern of alcohol intake may effectively mask some of the dangers associated with alcohol binging. However, as the current study’s findings reflect, even isolated binge drinking in pregnancy can have long-term negative consequences (namely, symptoms related to the presence of ADHD) for children born to alcohol-consuming mothers.

Posted on October 28th, 2014
Posted in Binge Drinking

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