Research Information For Parents
Jonathon Carr-Brown and Martyn Halle
The Sunday Times - Britain, November 20, 2005
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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 pregnant.
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, Ph.D, a professor at Queen's University, Belfast and Director of the Wellcome Fetal 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 during pregnancy.
Hepper presented the findings of his study of 40 pregnant women from the Royal Maternity Hospital, Belfast, to the Royal Society of Medicine. 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.
Researchers questioned 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.
Hepper's findings 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 other stimuli. However, once the nervous system is fully formed at 18 weeks, the reflex disappears in healthy babies and is replaced by a calmer "adult-like" 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."
Hepper's study 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 fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) which is thought to cause a range of behavioural and neurological disorders in children.
The Fetal 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 disorder (ADHD)."
"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 behavioral 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."
Infant Recognition by Tactile Cues
Marsha Kaitz, Hila Meirov, Ida Landman and Arthur Eidelman Infant Behavior and Development 16, 333-341(1993).
A series of experiments in Israel by Marsha Kaitz and colleagues have revealed the ability of parents to identify their own infants from others on the basis of touch alone. At first, mothers were blindfolded and presented with a row of three infants sleeping in their cribs. They were guided to stroke the back of the hand or the cheek and to guess which one of the infants was their own newborn. The majority were successful: 79% identified their own infants on one or both tasks. They had been together only about eight hours a day for breastfeeding and their babies were one to three days old. Recognition was based solely on tactile cues and the experiment showed that their ability to identify their new babies in this way had no relation to how many hours or days they had been together. The research team concluded that women possess an exceptional ability to recognize their babies by touch.
Kaitz and colleagues also tested the fathers (1994) under all the same conditions. The fathers were tested about six days after childbirth when they had been exposed to their babies for only about seven hours. Fathers were successful stroking the back of the hand of their sleeping babies but not the cheek. Seventy-eight percent recognized their infants on at least one of the trials. Fathers rated themselves as moderately confident in their guessing but this had no relationship to their actual success. Again, as in the case of the women, success was unrelated to how many hours they had spent with their babies, to how many other children they had, or the sex of the baby.
Emotional content of talk to the fetus and healthy coping behaviors during pregnancy.
Lauren Nelson & Anthony Fazio
Infant Mental Health Journal 16(3), 179-191 (1995).
This research pair used various instruments to sample and analyze the way 152 women, attending childbirth education classes talked to the fetus in the womb. Many mothers supplied samples of their talk. Virtually all of them were in the habit of talking to themselves, and 96% reported talking to their babies. This statistic reveals a lot about the changing culture of childbirth and the acceptability of talking to babies in the womb. A decade ago, this activity was not this popular and was regarded by experts as unrealistic and irrelevant because there was no way the baby could understand.
The researchers discovered that baby-talk and self-talk were different. Baby talk was more positive, while self-talk tended to be negative and emotionally critical. More negative talk was associated with higher cigarette and caffein consumption and use of medications. (Fifty percent of the women in this group were using medications (pain relievers, antacids, diet aids, etc.) The authors concluded that positive baby-talk put the speaker in a nurturing role and reflected sensitivity to the baby.
Sociodemographic Perspectives on Pregnant Women at Work
Constance L. Shehan
Seminars in Perinatology 2(1), 3-10 (1996).
In the century before 1993, the number of women in the labor force increased dramatically from four million to 58 million, and the proportion of women of working age who were in the work force increased from 17% to 58%. This increase has occurred across all social and demographic categories, including race and ethnicity, marital status, and the presence of children at home.
In 1994, 75% of women in the prime childbearing years (24-35) were in the labor force. Women of all ages are working including those with school age children and women before and after childbirth, with only a short time out for childbirth. Table 5 charts the common hazards and health effects of women's occupations and the number of women in those categories (clerical, hospital workers, health care lab workers, and electrical workers). The survey closes with eight recommendations for changes in workplace conditions to protect women.
Editor's Note: For more information on parenting, see Empathic Parenting