Drinking during pregnancy raises premature birth risk

London: Consuming alcohol during pregnancy may increase the risk of premature birth, low birth weight and even miscarriage, a new study has found.

The study, published in Biomed Central`s open access journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, looked at alcohol intake of thousands of pregnant women and found a strong link between drinking and risk of premature birth and other complications.

For the study, a team led by Deirdre Murphy from the University of Dublin, Ireland, questioned more than 60,000 pregnant women during their hospital booking interview, which usually occurred 10-12 weeks after conception.

The women were asked about their home life, whether they worked, what their nationality was, as well as their drinking habits prior to their antenatal booking visit.

While about a fifth of these women said that they never drank, 71 per cent claimed to be occasional drinkers (0-5 units a week).

About 10 per cent of the women, who drank a moderate amount of alcohol (6-20 units a week), were also more likelyto smoke, be in work and to have private health care compared to those who never drank.

Only two in 1,000 admitted to being heavy drinkers (greater than 20 units per week). These women were most likely to be young and to have used illegal drugs.

This data was compared to data from the birth record and to records from the special care baby unit. Within this low-alcohol group, the researchers found only one case of foetal alcohol syndrome, so it is likely that some of the women were underestimating (or under reporting) the amount they drank.

In general, foetal alcohol syndrome occurred less frequently than expected in this study, suggesting that it is either not recognised by medical staff or only becomes apparent after the mother and baby have left the hospital.

The moderate and heavy drinkers were often first time mothers (not surprisingly, unplanned pregnancy was associated with heavy drinking).

Heavy drinking was also related to very premature birth, and hence all the problems premature babies have including the increased risk of disease as an adult.

However, no difference was found in occurrence of congenital or other birth defects regardless of the amount of alcohol drunk.

"This study emphasises the need for improved detection of malcohol misuse in pregnancy and for early intervention in order to minimise the risks to the developing foetus," said Prof Murphy.

"We would recommend that further research is required before even low amounts of alcohol can be considered safe."