Whoa: Casual Drinking While Pregnant May Affect the Baby's Face


Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Over the years, when it comes to drinking alcohol while pregnant, there have been different arguments based on available science and cultural norms at the time. In fact, drinking (and smoking) while pregnant were more standard back in the '50s through '70s, until the discovery of fetal alcohol syndrome in 1973. 

Though some doctors will say it's okay to have a glass of wine here or there while pregnant, most health organizations across the world recommend that women abstain from alcohol entirely throughout the duration of pregnancy

Now, new data has found that even small amounts of alcohol while pregnant can affect the look of a baby's face—though the changes are subtle, purely aesthetic, and not yet known to be harmful or affect cognitive development. This information comes from a new research project lead by Jane Halliday, PhD, public health genetics, at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia, which studied 1570 mothers over the course of 12 months, 470 of whom had reported continuing to drink small amounts while pregnant.  

When the babies of these mothers were one year old, the researchers took 3-D photos detailing 70,000 different points on their faces. Through analysis, they found subtle commonalities in the faces of the babies whose mothers had continued with low levels of alcohol consumption throughout pregnancy, including a slightly shorter, more upturned nose, and other subtleties in the eyes and mouths. 

It is established that fetal alcohol syndrome from heavy drinking while pregnant causes distinct facial features such as small eye openings and shorter, upturned noses, in addition to attention and behavioral development issues and lower IQ. Though the findings from Halliday's study did not point to any developmental or behavioral issues related to low levels of alcohol consumption yet, the clinical significance is still to be determined.

"A link between these facial changes and brain structure and functioning remains to be investigated," the study stated. The researcher's conclusion was that because "any alcohol consumption has consequences on craniofacial development," "complete abstinence from alcohol while pregnant is the safest option."

Read the full study here, and head over to New Scientist for additional information from the study's lead researcher, Jane Halliday.