News

Drinking While Pregnant May Affect Your Baby’s Facial Features

By  | 

It’s an established fact that drinking alcohol in large amounts while pregnant can lead to all sorts of birth defects. And even though some obstetricians say drinking while pregnant can be okay if consumed in small amounts, most doctors agree there is no amount of alcohol that is safe in pregnancy. A new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association backs this up: researchers found that even small amounts of prenatal alcohol exposure can affect a baby’s facial features.

Researchers from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia analyzed three-dimensional images of over 400 children’s faces and heads taken around their first birthday. A computer algorithm placed an array of nearly 70,000 points on those images and looked for any substantial deviations from a standardized template made from all of the children’s scans. The mothers also answered questions about their alcohol intake while pregnant, and researchers found that nearly 80 percent of the children in the study had some alcohol exposure as a fetus.

One of the screens for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is based on facial features. Babies with excessive exposure to alcohol in utero often have three telltale facial markers: small eyes, a thin upper lip, and a flat area above the upper lip where there are typically two vertical ridges (also known as the philtrum). Researchers in this study found subtle differences in these same areas when the baby was exposed to alcohol as a fetus —even when that exposure was minimal and during the first trimester, before the mother knew about the pregnancy. The computer algorithm also picked up on a normally difficult-to-measure change called mid-facial hypoplasia, in which the center of the face develops more slowly than the eyes, forehead, and lower jaw.

Jane Halliday, the lead researcher of the study, says that women shouldn’t panic. “At this stage, we have not identified any problems for people to worry about. “Even if the alcohol has had some effect, many other factors have an influence on a baby’s health and development, such as nutrition.”

Still, the researchers believe this is further evidence that alcohol should be completely avoided during pregnancy. “Prenatal alcohol exposure, even at low levels, can influence craniofacial development,” they wrote. “Although the clinical significance of these findings is yet to be determined, they support the conclusion that for women who are or may become pregnant, avoiding alcohol is the safest option.”

(Image: iStock / Highwaystarz-Photography)