The Sunday Times - Britain
The Sunday Times November 20, 2005
Twitches that indicate
alcohol may hurt baby
Jonathon Carr-Brown and Martyn Halle
here to watch video
SCIENTISTS have captured graphic images of the damage done to unborn
babies as a result of women drinking during pregnancy.
Just one glass of wine
a week can make babies “jump” in the womb throughout
a nine-month pregnancy. Experts believe this abnormal hyperactive
behaviour is the result of alcohol slowing or retarding the formation
of the central nervous system.
Doctors have warned
for decades that women who consume large amounts of alcohol during
pregnancy can affect their child’s mental development.
The Department of Health
(DoH) advises pregnant women to limit their alcohol to one or two
glasses of wine a week. Its figures show 61% of women drink while
The new research suggests
even moderate alcohol consumption makes a baby 3½ times more
likely to suffer from abnormal spasms in the womb. The findings,
by Peter Hepper, a professor at Belfast University’s foetal
behaviour research unit, appear to back the view that there is no
safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
The government will now
face calls to place warnings on bottles about the dangers of drinking
Hepper presented the
findings of his study of 40 pregnant women from the Royal Maternity
hospital, Belfast, to the Royal Society of Medicine on Wednesday.
None of the mothers was
asked to drink but 20 admitted that they would continue to drink
during their pregnancy. The other 20 drank no alcohol.
the 20 pregnant drinkers and found they consumed between one and
four units of alcohol (four glasses of wine) a week.
In the first half of
the study all the women underwent three ultrasound scans during
the first 18 weeks of their pregnancy.
In the second half, the
women had four more scans at 20, 25, 30 and 35 weeks. The scans
lasted up to 45 minutes to try to capture hyperactivity.
have surprised child neurology experts. Between conception and 18
weeks, babies display a primitive “startle reflex” which
causes babies to jump involuntarily in the womb at loud noises and
However, once the nervous
system is fully formed at 18 weeks, the reflex disappears in healthy
babies and is replaced by a calmer “adult” reflex.
Hepper found that the
babies of mothers who drank — whether one unit a week or four
— all continued to display a “startle reflex”
throughout their pregnancy. The reflex in the babies of the non-drinking
mothers tailed off at 18 weeks.
The professor also found
that the babies of women who drank suffered more “startles”
during the first 18 weeks.
Hepper, who published his findings in the Journal of Physiology
and Behaviour, concluded that even moderate consumption of alcohol
had a serious effect on the formation of a baby’s central
nervous system. He explained: “This indicates that the nerve
pathways in the brain have been damaged.”
Hepper concluded: “Our
study shows that alcohol is having an effect on the baby even at
low levels and that is quite disturbing. We don’t think there
is a safe limit for alcohol consumption in pregnancy.”
appears to corroborate US research, conducted after birth, which
has shown that drinking during pregnancy lowers a child’s
IQ and increases hyperactivity.
Some doctors believe
the babies scanned by Hepper are showing the early signs of foetal
alcohol syndrome (FAS) which is thought to cause a range of behavioural
and neurological disorders in children.
The Foetal Alcohol Syndrome
Trust estimates that between 6,000 to 12,000 babies are affected
in the UK each year. Margaret Burrows, a clinical geneticist at
Leicester royal infirmary, said: “The startle movement (in
the womb) is clearly not normal and would seem to indicate the child
has the traits of fidgeting which we see in attention deficit hyperactive
“We believe that
a proportion of children who have ADHD may have developed it as
a result of their mother’s drinking during pregnancy.”
The next stage of Hepper’s study will monitor whether the
babies go on to suffer mental and behavioural problems.
Lord Mitchell, the Labour
peer, wants the government to support his private members’
bill which seeks labelling on all alcohol, warning of the dangers
of drinking during pregnancy. He will introduce the bill in the
new year. He said: “The majority of the public might not have
heard of FAS, but they instinctively know that drinking during pregnancy
is not a good idea.”
For the full video see
or see it at http://www.faslink.org/graphics/alcohol
fetus startle response stream (wmr).asf