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Originally published Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Danish study doesn't change the answer: Don't drink while pregnant

A Danish study suggests a few drinks per week during pregnancy has no effect on children's intelligence or activity levels. Two University of Washington professors looked at the study and conclude what most research shows; It is not safe to drink during pregnancy.

Special to The Times

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IS it safe to drink alcohol during pregnancy? A new Danish study reports drinking one to eight alcoholic drinks per week during pregnancy has no effect on children's intelligence or activity levels. But this goes against everything we've heard about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.

What about the surgeon general's advisory? "No amount of alcohol consumption can be considered safe during pregnancy." How are we to trust research if we receive conflicting messages like these?

Let's start with the most important question: Is it safe to drink during pregnancy? The answer is no.

If you read carefully, even the Danish researchers come to this conclusion. Nevertheless, MSNBC reported, "A few drinks during pregnancy may be OK, study suggests."

So is the Danish study wrong? The researchers studied preschoolers; 870 whose mothers drank during pregnancy and 758 whose mothers reported not drinking during pregnancy. They measured the children's IQ and attention at the age of 5. Children exposed prenatally to one to eight drinks per week had the same IQ and attention levels as children with no exposure.

The reason the children did not appear to be harmed is because the children were too young to measure the full impact alcohol may have had on their brains.

A 5-year-old's brain is not developed enough to perform complex tasks like following multiple instructions, writing a report or multiplying numbers. Decades of research on fetal alcohol syndrome confirms that alcohol has its greatest impact on complex brain functions. This is why children damaged by prenatal alcohol look deceptively good in the preschool years. The full impact of their exposure will not be evident until their adolescent years.

So, if the news reports have you believing one to eight drinks per week are safe, please consider the following facts based on 2,600 children who received a fetal alcohol syndrome diagnostic evaluation in the Washington State FAS Diagnostic & Prevention Network clinics:

• One out of every seven children diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome (the most severe outcome caused by prenatal alcohol exposure) had a reported exposure of one to eight drinks per week while in utero.

• Half of the children with fetal alcohol syndrome had normal developmental scores as preschoolers. But all had severe brain dysfunction confirmed by age 10.

• Only 10 percent of the children with fetal alcohol syndrome had attention problems by age 5. Sixty percent had attention problems by the age of 10. (The Danish study only assessed attention at age 5.)

• Only 30 percent of the children with fetal alcohol syndrome have an IQ below normal. But 100 percent had severe dysfunction in other areas like language, memory and activity level. (The Danish study did not assess these areas.)

Which children are most vulnerable? We do not know because risk is not just based on how much alcohol the mother drank. Twin studies confirm that genetics also plays a role. When genetically different twins are exposed to the same levels of alcohol, one twin can be born with fetal alcohol syndrome while the other twin develops normally.

We also know that metabolism plays a part. Every person metabolizes alcohol differently, and a pregnant woman simply can't know how "just one drink" might affect her developing fetus.

So, while the science may be complicated and studies sometimes yield conflicting messages, the message for women is simple: To have the healthiest baby possible, don't drink alcohol when you're trying to get pregnant and during pregnancy.

If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant and you drink alcohol, you should stop. If you cannot stop drinking, please contact us. We are here to help you and your family.

Susan Astley, left, is a University of Washington epidemiology and pediatrics professor and director of the Washington State FAS Diagnostic & Prevention Network. Therese Grant is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Fetal Alcohol and Drug Unit at the UW.

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