It turns out that the amount of alcohol a mother drinks before and during pregnancy is linked to critical changes in the shape of the child’s face.

A new study published in the journal Human Reproduction found that babies whose mothers drank alcohol up to 3 months before and during pregnancy showed traits such as a turned-up nose tip, a shortened nose, a turned-out chin, and a turned-in lower eyelid.

Researchers say even as little as 12 grams of alcohol consumed by the mother for a week—which is equivalent to a small, 175-ml glass of wine or 330-ml bottle of beer—was still enough to alter the baby’s facial features.

Notably, though, this is the first study to examine whether alcohol intake, even in the smallest amount, affected the child’s face from the womb, including exposures up to 3 months before pregnancy.

Drinking large amounts of alcohol before and during pregnancy can have significant adverse effects on the development of the child and lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This disorder is characterized by a mix of retarded growth, neurological impairments, and markedly abnormal facial development. Some symptoms children with FASD often experience include problems learning at school, memory problems, ADHD, and speech and language delays.

While previous research has shown low alcohol consumption causes developmental problems in children, whether it could also affect the child’s facial features is unknown. 

Study Methodology 

To find out, researchers turned to data from the Generation R Study, a prospective cohort that tracked pregnant women and their children from fetal life until adulthood. They used a deep learning algorithm to analyze 3D photographs of children from multiple ethnic groups who were born between April 2002 and January 2006 in the Netherlands. The children were 9 years (3,149) and 13 years (2,477) as of the time the 3D images of their faces were taken.

The team generated heat maps to display the specific physical features of the face associated with the mother’s alcohol intake.

Questionnaires were also given to the mothers to provide information on their alcohol consumption before and during pregnancy.

Researchers then divided the mothers into 3 groups to better understand alcohol consumption in different pregnancy stages: those who didn’t drink at all before or during pregnancy (the control group); those who drank up to 3 months before pregnancy and then stopped; and those who drank during their pregnancy, which included those who drank during their first trimester but stopped together with those that did not stop but continued for the rest of their pregnancy.

What the Study Revealed

By the end of the study, the team found a significant link between the mother’s alcohol consumption before delivery and facial shape in the 9-year-old children. Their results also showed that the more alcohol the mother takes, the more the face shape of the child is altered. And the more prominent features observed included a turned-up nose tip, shortened nose, turned-out chin, and turned-in lower eyelid. 

Their findings also revealed that as the children grew, the link between the mother’s alcohol consumption and the child’s facial shape weakened. The team credits this change over the years to the likely influence of the environment.

“But that does not mean that alcohol’s effect on health will also disappear,” explains Prof. Roshchupkin, the lead study author.

In addition, the team found that the results were the same for mothers who drank only during their first trimester and stopped and for those who drank throughout. What this suggests is that any alcohol exposure to the fetus at all during the first trimester of pregnancy is enough to cause these associations. Thus, the first trimester is a sensitive and crucial period for the fetus’s proper development.

However, since it’s an observational study, it’s worth noting that the research does not prove alcohol causes changes in the baby’s face. The study authors explain that their findings only prove an association.

Regardless, there’s no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should abstain completely from alcohol months before conceiving and when pregnant; otherwise, it could lead to adverse health outcomes for the infant.

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