By Bunmi Sofola

Imagine when your pregnancy is scanned for the first time so you could see your precious baby growing in the womb, suddenly its whole body gives a shudder and the foetus appears to jump.  Such a movement is known as the startle reflex; and the scan described above are from photographs from scans that were taken by Peter Hepper, a professor of psychology at Queens University, Belfast, an expert on the effects of alcohol on unborn babies. 

It was once believed that the occasional glass of wine in pregnancy is fine – though alcohol rapidly reaches your baby through your blood-stream and across the placenta.  But studies such as Professor Hepper’s could prove this belief wrong and that drinking alcohol at all while pregnant could affect your baby. 

The Prof studied 40 pregnant women.  Half said they would not give up alcohol in their pregnancy, half said they would; those who did drink had one to four units of alcohol – around four small glasses of wine every week. 

 Each woman was scanned seven times at various stages of their pregnancy.  The results were astounding.  By 18 to 20 weeks – when the foetal brain becomes more developed – the startle reflex in the foetuses of the non-drinking mothers had disappeared.  But the reflex was still present in the foetuses of the women who drank, and was visible even at 35 weeks.  What does this mean? 

Prof. Hepper explains:  “The startle reflex was still present in the foetuses of women who drank, and was visible even at 35 weeks.  What does this mean?  Prof. Hepper explains: “The startle reflex is one of the first movements that a foetus performs, usually in response to loud noises.  It is a very primitive response.  Of course, this sudden jerk is not the way we move in later life.  As the foetus mature, different parts of the brain develop to control movement, so gradually, the startle reflex disappears.  

However, this was not the case with the foetuses of the mothers who drank during pregnancy.  The alcohol seems to be affecting the way the child’s brain develops.  We know that heavier drinking can cause behavioural problems such as hyper-acting in children.  It may be that we are seeing the very beginning of a problem with child behaviour ….  “The Prof now hopes to follow the progress of the children in his study for their first three to five years, to find out more about the effects of drinking while pregnant.  And although he stresses that his research is still at a very early stage, he believes that the advice for pregnant women that it is safe to drink ‘one of two units of alcohol once or twice a week is misleading.  

“Women should be advised not to drink at all,” he says.  “In Northern Ireland, we have an anti-drink-driving campaign that says one drink affects your ability to drive.  I don’t see that message coming out for pregnant women.  A system should be put in place to help women stop drinking during pregnancy.” 

In its severest form, foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) can also cause facial deformities, low birth-weight, hyperactivity, poor co-ordination and major organ failure.  Horrified by the lack of support for children with FAS, Gloria Armistead, whose son suffers from it founded the Association of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome awareness UK, which campaigns for more awareness of the dangers of drinking during pregnancy. 

She says:  “I recently spoke to a group of teenage mums, and one of them stood up and said:  “How dare you tell me what to do with my body?  If I want to go out and get bladdered, I will.”  That’s what we are up against.  FAS is preventable with education and awareness.  It is not hereditary or genetic.  But it is incurable.  “We don’t want to judge or scare women.  Alcohol is our culture.  There are reasons why women drink and it may be difficult for them to stop. 

We need support for women who are drinking during pregnancy, more evidence that you don’t need to be a binge drinker for alcohol to harm your baby continues to stack up.  A recent US study published in the journal Alcoholism:  Clinical and Experimental Research, found that seven-year-olds whose mothers had drunk moderately to heavy amounts in pregnancy had lower IQs and experienced more problems with problem-solving skills and memory.  Perhaps, it is now time for our own government to follow the lead in other countries such as the US – and advise women that the only safe alcohol level during pregnancy is none at all.


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