In the study, women were placed into categories, including teetotalers who never drank alcohol; those who abstained while pregnant; light drinkers (one to two drinks per week); moderate drinkers (three to six per week, or three to five at any one time); and heavy drinkers (seven or more drinks per week or six in one sitting). Nine months after giving birth, the mothers were interviewed on their drinking patterns while pregnant, as well as social and economic factors.
While this research has not yet shown that light drinking during pregnancy is linked to developmental risks, it is widely known that heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause significant physical and behavioral problems in children, including fetal alcohol syndrome, birth defects, and low birth weights. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking, defined as having five or more drinks on at least one occasion in 30 days, is particularly harmful to fetal brain development.
Mothers-to-be who drank heavily in the new study were more likely to have children who were hyperactive, with more behavioral and emotional problems than children whose mothers abstained.
"The link between heavy maternal alcohol use and risks to the fetus is well-established," said Dr. Rahil Briggs, director of Healthy Steps at Montefiore Medical Center. "We know less about those mothers-to-be who drink small amounts. In that way, [the study] is helpful."
But it does not change many doctors' minds.
"I don't think there will ever be a time that the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists or the American Academy of Pediatrics come out to say, 'Oh yes, you can consume small amounts of alcohol during your pregnancy," said Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in private practice in Austin, Texas and co-author of the book "Baby 411." "As such, practicing clinicians won't either. The potential lifetime risks to the child simply aren't worth taking."