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Home > Research Articles > Mom-To-Be's Drinking May Up Child's Drinking Risk

Reuters Health

Monday, April 14, 2003

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Children heavily exposed to alcohol while still in the womb appear to be at higher risk for developing drinking problems in young adulthood, suggest new study findings announced Monday.

"It appears that exposure to alcohol during pregnancy can predict the amount of alcohol problems that a child will have in adulthood," said study author Dr. John S. Baer, research associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington and education coordinator at the Addiction Treatment Center at Veteran's Administration Puget Sound Medical Center, in a prepared statement.

The finding "takes us a step further in understanding why some people have alcohol problems," Baer added.

Scientists have long attributed alcoholism to a variety of factors including environment and heredity. This is one of the first studies to look for an association between maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy and future alcohol problems in offspring.

The study began when Baer's team assessed the drinking habits of about 500 pregnant women in 1974 and 1975. The researchers than followed the offspring of these women for 21 years, at which time they were interviewed about their own alcohol consumption habits.

"We found that 14 percent of the young adults who were prenatally exposed to one or more episodes of five or more drinks had alcohol problems at age 21 compared to just 4.5 percent who were not heavily exposed to alcohol," said Baer.

This was true even after the researchers took into account a family history of alcohol problems, exposure to nicotine and other drugs, as well as other factors that can affect alcohol use.

Drinking problems among the 21-year-olds were identified through the use of a test known as the Alcohol Dependence Scale, which is used to measure the severity of drinking associated problems, like blackouts, and alcohol dependence symptoms.

"This is not a one-to-one relationship, but a mother's drinking elevates the risk of her offspring having alcohol problems," said Baer.

The US Surgeon General warns that alcohol use during pregnancy puts a fetus at risk of a wide range of medical problems, including premature birth, mental and physical retardation, and even death.

SOURCE: Archives of General Psychiatry 2003;60:377-385.