A just-released Danish study on drinking during pregnancy had a sobering effect on Emily Gunderson, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (MOFAS).
The group is unequivocal that there is no safe amount of drinking while pregnant. No wonder Gunderson was shaking her head at the study's implication that consuming up to eight alcoholic drinks a week is probably fine.
"It did seem kind of odd," Gunderson said, pointing to 30 years of research supporting abstention. "But it's a good time for us to come out and clarify that there is no safe level."
It's also a good time to clarify what the Danish researchers reported, despite sensational headlines. Read deeper into the study (which few will do) and you'll find clear support for the U.S. surgeon general's warning that no alcohol is safe during pregnancy.
The study, published in late June in An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, focused on 870 preschoolers whose mothers reported drinking during pregnancy, and 758 preschoolers whose mothers reported not drinking during pregnancy. When the children were 5, the researchers measured the children's IQ and attention levels.
They found that the children who were exposed in utero to one to eight drinks per week had the same IQ and attention levels as the children with no exposure to alcohol.
Here's the problem. The 5-year-old brain is still developing, and can look "deceptively good in the preschool years," said fetal alcohol expert Susan Astley, responding to the study. Astley directs the Washington State FAS Diagnostic & Prevention Network.
"A 5-year-old's brain is not developed enough to perform complex tasks like remembering and following multiple instructions, writing an essay, communicating abstract ideas effectively, exercising good judgment."
At Astley's clinics, only 10 percent of children with FAS had attention problems by age 5, but 60 percent had attention problems by age 10. Half of the children diagnosed with FAS had developmental scores in the normal range as preschoolers. All had severe brain dysfunction confirmed by age 10.
Other studies have shown that drinking alcohol at these levels during pregnancy is associated with miscarriage, stillbirth, pre-term delivery and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). More than 8,500 babies are born each year in Minnesota with some level of prenatal alcohol exposure.
Lydia Cooper didn't need a study to drive home the point. The 40-year-old mom from Alexandria, Minn., was in an abusive relationship when she was pregnant with her now-11-year-old daughter, Kalee. So she drank "a lot," she said. "I was trying to drown my sorrows in alcohol. I couldn't seem to pull myself away."
She did pull away eventually. But at 1, Kalee got sick easily and couldn't keep food down. In preschool, the girl became disruptive and struggled to keep up with activities. In second grade, an alert teacher suggested that Kalee be tested.
"I had to face what I had done," Cooper said. "The tears rolled for days upon weeks. I was so devastated that she was so harmed by what I had done."
Kalee will enter sixth grade in the fall. She has an individualized education plan and is "flourishing," said Cooper, happily married to another man. Cooper is part of MOFAS' Circle of Hope, a support network of mothers whose children were affected by their drinking during pregnancy.
Jai Negri of Edina also was surprised by the study. Negri, 30, is pregnant with her third baby. She stayed completely away from alcohol with her first two pregnancies, and now might just take a sip of beer "for nostalgia. But I still feel very cautious about it."
Negri said most of her pregnant friends won't even attend a happy hour at a bar.
To be fair, the Danish researchers sounded a bit surprised themselves. They acknowledged the dangers and concluded that theirs is but one piece of information adding to the body of literature, with more studies warranted.
"Because no safe level of alcohol during pregnancy has been established," they summarized, "advice continues to be that women should refrain from drinking alcohol during pregnancy."
Cooper agrees. "Take it from a mother with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders," she said. "There is no safe amount. When you drink, where do you think all that alcohol goes?"