Any Level of Alcohol During Pregnancy Results in Craniofacial Anomalies


Prenatal alcohol exposure typically leads to fetal alcohol syndrome and associated disorders. Muggli and colleagues found that even low levels of alcohol exposure are linked to craniofacial anomalies in children, which may indicate cognitive disorders even at low levels of alcohol exposure.

Expectant mothers are told to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy. Prenatal exposure to alcohol can result in fetal alcohol syndrome or related disorders, in which infants experience developmental and cognitive disorders, including motor and speech problems. In addition, many children diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome appear to display specific craniofacial characteristics. However, assessments of craniofacial shape tend to be simplistic.

To investigate the relationship of prenatal alcohol exposure to craniofacial disorders, Muggli and colleagues published a study in JAMA Pediatrics in which they linked craniofacial characteristics in children to varying degrees of alcohol consumption by the mother. Their sample consisted of 415 white Australian children, aged 12 months. They assessed craniofacial shape holistically using 3-D images. They also assessed the level of alcohol exposure in utero, including low, moderate, high, and binge-level alcohol exposure. The control group consisted of children of mothers who abstained from alcohol entirely.

Muggli and colleagues found a consistent association between craniofacial shape and alcohol exposure during pregnancy, regardless of the level or timing of alcohol exposure. However, these changes were most marked among children with the highest levels of prenatal alcohol exposure. Further, these changes were significant only for mothers who reported feeling the effects of alcohol “quickly” or “very quickly”, and not among those whose mothers reported feeling the effects of alcohol at a normal rate.

These results suggest that drinking at low levels may result in both visible changes to craniofacial shape in children, as well as invisible developmental and cognitive disorders. However, it is likely that maternal metabolism of alcohol plays some role in determining the extent of these effects.

Written By: C.I. Villamil

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  1. It’s unfortunate that there’s no reliable way to diagnose FASD other than by sentinel facial features, since most doctors are not trained to detect anything but the most obvious of those.The recent research l have read states that if no alcohol is consumed during days 18-21 of gestation, no facial features will be present. The brain develops continuously throughout gestation, however, so consuming alcohol in any amount at any time during pregnancy WILL lead to some kind of brain damage!

    1. Kathryn, you kind of contradict yourself here: there IS a reliable way to diagnose FASD, just not many docs who are trained to do that. Also have to argue about your statement that “any amount of alcohol at any time WILL lead to…brain damage”. That kind of certainty is just not warranted.

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