Most of the emphasis for pregnant women has been to cut the number who smoke. For women who smoke and drink the effects are worse. Fewer than half of their unborn babies showed lower levels of brain activities at 25 weeks.
"There needs to be more education on the effects of alcohol during pregnancy," said Jennifer Little, of the Foetal Behaviour Research Centre at the Royal Maternity Hospital, Queen's University, Belfast, who conducted the study. "There has been lots of concern for smoking but alcohol can be just as damaging to the unborn child. There is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy."
The researchers fear that the damage to brain activity and brain development in the womb could be permanent. All the babies showed normal responses at birth but now at five months old are undergoing testing.
The researchers assessed the brain activity of 129 foetuses at 25 weeks. A loud buzzer was placed on the mother's stomach and the response time of the foetus, which gives an indication of development, was recorded. Just over a third of the foetuses whose mothers smoked up to 20 cigarettes a day, and drank four to seven units of alcohol a week, responded at the normal rate compared with 70 per cent of those mothers who neither smoked or drank. For the foetuses of mothers who smoked but did not drink, 55 per cent responded normally and for those of mothers who drank but did not smoke, only 42.5 per cent responded at the normal level.
Ms Little said Britain should follow the example of the United States, where health warnings about alcohol and the unborn child were publicised.
The study may soon be used to identify a wide range of problems. The conference was told that foetal behaviour at 18-20 weeks could soon be monitored in all pregnant women to allow earlier identification of potential neurological problems. Delegates were told it was possible to identify foetal development problems in mothers who have diabetes and foetal leg movements could also be used as a means of assessing neural functioning and deterioration in a spina bifida foetus.Reuse content