Most people are aware of the dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant and most women will abstain from drinking alcohol at all until after their baby is born. However, new research in Scotland has found that an alarming number of pregnant women are still drinking regularly, even if in small amounts.
Hundreds of newborn babies at the Princess Royal Maternity Hospital in Glasgow are being tested for alcohol, with early results showing that up to forty-two per cent of expectant mothers are continuing to drink some alcohol. Research has also demonstrated that around fifteen per cent of them are drinking more than two small glasses of wine every week.
Danger to Unborn Child
Official advice to pregnant women regarding alcohol consumption has changed recently, and expectant mothers are now being advised to completely avoid alcohol while pregnant. The Scottish Government has warned that ‘the effects of alcohol on the developing foetus can be many and varied, and potentially devastating’.
This new research came on the back of a separate study into the eye movement of babies born to mothers with a history of drug use. The study showed that around forty-four per cent of mothers who had used drugs had also been using alcohol. Nevertheless, results from the control group with no history of drug use also showed that twenty-three per cent had been using alcohol, despite all participants denying alcohol use in pregnancy on the questionnaire.
Lead researcher, Dr Helen Mactier, said, “There is an assumption that all problem drinking in pregnancy is associated with poverty, and there is no evidence to confirm that. It is much easier to conceal problem drinking if you are affluent and if you are clever.”
The consultant neonatologist and her team at Princess Royal Maternity Hospital are now in the process of collecting samples of meconium from new-borns. Meconium is a dark substance passed by babies shortly after they are born and this substance contains matter ingested while in the womb.
Dr Mactier said, “Alcohol is a small molecule so it crosses the placenta easily. It can be in the amniotic fluid; it can be in the blood. The foetus metabolises alcohol the same as it gets sugar and protein.”
Nonetheless, she said that once the alcohol begins to metabolise, the molecules grow and are not able to leave through the placenta, which is why they get stuck and are found in the meconium. The samples being collected will be frozen and then sent to Italy to be examined by forensic toxicology experts.
Identifying Alcohol Consumption in Pregnancy
The study was possible thanks to co-operation from new mothers and staff at the hospital, with almost six hundred samples collected already. Mothers-to-be are also asked to fill in a questionnaire about lifestyle and background. The aim of the study is to identify significant levels of alcohol by-products in the meconium, meaning the occasional alcoholic drink would not be noticeable.
Researchers are hoping that the study will allow them to identify the groups who are most likely to consume alcohol while pregnant, thus enabling them to intervene. Dr Mactier said, “Alcohol consumption in pregnancy is almost certainly contributing to a lot of learning disability in Scotland, which is not fully recognised, and learning disability is associated with poor school performance and criminality in the long term.”
Foetal alcohol syndrome is said to be one of the most common causes of learning disabilities in the UK. Babies born with foetal alcohol syndrome tend to have a low body weight, are small in length and have poor co-ordination. They may also go on to have learning difficulties as well as behavioural problems.