Newborn babies tested for alcohol after shock research shows 42 per cent of mums drink while pregnant
8 hrs ago / Helen Puttick
NEWBORN babies in Scotland are being tested for alcohol after researchers found signs that pregnant mothers from all walks of life are drinking regularly.
Hundreds of infants at the Princess Royal Maternity Hospital (PRM) in Glasgow are having samples collected and then analysed for molecules which stay inside unborn children when their mothers drink.
Early results suggest up to 42 per cent of mothers consume some alcohol while pregnant, with around 15 per cent drinking more than one or two small glasses of wine a week.
Official advice across the UK is for expectant mothers to avoid alcohol entirely, with the Scottish Government warning: “The effects of alcohol on the developing foetus can be many and varied, and potentially devastating.”
The new research, funded by Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity, was inspired by a separate project in the city looking at eye movements in babies with mothers who had a history of drug abuse.
It found evidence of significant alcohol use in 44 per cent of the mothers who had used other substances as well as 23 per cent of a control group who had no addiction history, although the number of participants was small. When completing questionnaires all denied alcohol misuse in pregnancy.
Consultant neonatologist Dr Helen Mactier, who is leading the research, said: “There is an assumption that all problem drinking in pregnancy is associated with poverty and there is no evidence to confirm that.”
“It is much easier to conceal problem drinking if you are affluent and if you are clever.”
After a feasibility study, supported by the Scottish Government, the team at PRM are now collecting 750 samples of meconium – the thick dark substance which babies pass shortly after birth containing matter they ingested in the womb.
Dr Mactier said: “Alcohol is a small molecule so it crosses the placenta easily. It can be in the amniotic fluid, it can be in the blood. The foetus metabolises alcohol the same as it gets sugar and protein.”
However, she said the by-products of metabolising alcohol are large molecules which cannot leave the placenta. Dr Mactier said: “The molecules are then stuck in the baby. They get laid down in the meconium.”
The meconium samples now being collected at PRM are being frozen and sent to forensic toxicology experts in Italy for analysis.
Dr Mactier said almost 600 samples had been gathered so far thanks to “huge cooperation from mums as well as staff” at the hospital. The mothers are also asked to complete a questionnaire about their background and lifestyle.
The researchers are looking for high levels of the alcohol by-products, so they say the occasional drink will not be highlighted.
By identifying the scale of alcohol consumption in pregnancy and the groups most likely to drink, they hope to be able to target messages and interventions to address the problem.
Dr Mactier said: “Alcohol consumption in pregnancy is almost certainly contributing to a lot of learning disability in Scotland, which is not fully recognised, and learning disability is associated with poor school performance and criminality in the long term.”
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, the umbrella term for a group of problems caused by exposure to booze in the womb, is considered the most common non-genetic cause of learning disability in the UK. The symptoms include short height, low body weight, poor co-ordination, learning issues, behaviour problems as well as issues with hearing and sight.
It can, however, be difficult to diagnose and Dr Mactier’s research team is also investigating whether a spot of blood could be taken at birth and analysed for signs of significant alcohol exposure in the womb. This could then be used to help diagnose FASD in children exhibiting symptoms as they grow-up.
Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity – formerly Yorkhill Children’s Charity – is funding the £65,000 project.
Shona Cardle, chief executive of Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity, said: “This particular study highlights the importance of research to the health of children today and for future generations.
“The ability to identify fetal alcohol syndrome in babies gives medical practitioners the opportunity to intervene and help mothers at an earlier stage than was previously possible, with clear benefits for the long term health of further children born to affected mothers.”
Dr Peter Rice, chairman of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said Dr Mactier’s work was very important for increasing understanding of the affects of alcohol on the foetus.
He added that World Health Organisation research showed high levels of awareness regarding the risks of drinking during pregnancy in the UK compared to Eastern Europe.
Dr Rice also said alcohol could damage babies during the early months of pregnancy. “There needs to be a whole population approach,” he said. “Just simply giving women information once they are pregnant, although important, for some types of harm will be too late.”
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