How Much Can I Drink?

Confused as to whether any amount of alcohol is safe for an expecting mom to drink? You’re not alone.

Recent, well-publicized studies from researchers in Denmark downplay the risks of consuming alcohol during pregnancy.

Such a suggestion is wrong, according to Dr. Susan Astley, a University of Washington fetal alcohol syndrome expert and director of the Washington State FAS Diagnostic & Prevention Network.

“At the moment there’s a lot of press misunderstanding (of) a handful of research studies that have gone to publication that insinuate a little bit of drinking is not only OK but is beneficial to the developing fetus,” she said. “We contend that the reason the children in these studies do not appear to be harmed by alcohol is because the children were too young to measure the full impact alcohol may have had on their brains.”

Children damaged by prenatal alcohol exposure do deceptively well in their preschool years. The full effect of the damage caused by their mothers’ drinking while pregnant will not be evident until their adolescent years, she said.

Some doctors say there is little reason to believe an occasional glass of wine or a margarita consumed before a woman knows she is pregnant could do noticeable damage to a child.

Yet a review of 2,600 children diagnosed with full fetal alcohol syndrome in Washington state found that one in every seven kids with FAS had been exposed to just one to eight drinks a week while in the womb. In 2000, researchers in Berlin, Tokyo and St. Louis found that exposing infant rats to a single dose of alcohol — equivalent to two times the legal limit over four hours — caused “considerable damage” to the developing brain.

The harm done to each child depends on the mother’s genetics, the child’s genetics and what parts of the brain and body were developing when she drank.

Doctors can diagnose a child based on the hallmark facial features of FAS alone but it is difficult to predict or measure the severity of brain injury and potential behavior problems until the child is 6 years old or older. It’s harder still to determine whether a child has alcohol-induced brain damage without visible, physical signs of disability. Such children far outnumber those with FAS but they may have just as much brain damage, if not more, than children whose facial features hint at the injury to their brains.

“They don’t have the outward signs, they don’t have the face,” said Marilyn Pierce-Bulger, a a nurse practitioner who diagnoses children for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Anchorage. “It’s the hidden disability.”

The Surgeon General in 2005 urged women who are pregnant or may become pregnant to stop drinking in order to prevent alcohol-related disabilities in their unborn children.

Originally published February 22, 2014 by KYLE HOPKINS in Anchorage Daily News.