Alcohol consumption during pregnancy may cause subtle facial changes in babies says new study

According to a newly published study, consuming moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy may cause some distinct facial changes in babies. These subtle changes in the facial features of the babies are non-detectable with the naked eye said researchers. They can be detected using a 3D analysis they said. The changes in the facial features of the babies included those to the nose, lips and eyes that were picked up by the computer. These changes could be seen in babies whose mothers took any amount of alcohol during pregnancy.

For this study, the Australian researchers gathered different photos of 415 infants at the age of one year. This was done using three-dimensional photography. The idea was to look at changes of the facial features seen in the womb of the mothers. The 3D analysis used “holistic craniofacial phenotyping” For this purpose; 3D surface models of the head and face of the babies were used.

The mothers were also given questionnaires about alcohol consumption. This questionnaire covered alcohol consumption at three months before pregnancy and followed by amount of alcohol consumption throughout the pregnancy at each trimester. The study was conducted between January 1, 2011, and December 30, 2014. The mothers recruited were in their first trimester of pregnancy and visited the low-risk, public maternity clinics in metropolitan Melbourne, Australia.

The researchers categorized alcohol consumption into different levels;

  • low-level exposure indicating around 20 grams of alcohol per drink or 70 grams in a week
  • moderate level exposure indicating 21 to 49 grams of alcohol per drink or 70 grams in a week
  • high levels of exposure indicating more than 70 grams in a week
  • binge drinking indicating at least 50 grams or more per episode

These mothers who had some level of exposure to alcohol during pregnancy were compared to control group of mothers who did not drink at all.

This study examined the differences in the mid face of the babies and nose among babies of the control group of mothers and babies of mothers who consumed alcohol.

Of the babies, 195 were girls and 220 boys. The differences in the facial features included those in the nose, lips, eyes and most importantly mid face. There was a recession of the mid face with an upturned nose and shortening of the nose. Especially the tip of the nose was affected. Most affected babies were those with most exposure. Low exposure in first trimester led to changes in the forehead, moderate to high exposure in the first trimester led to significant changes in the mid face, eyes, chin and sides of the head. Binge drinking in the first trimester changes the chins significantly in babies.

According to the study co-author Jane Halliday, professor at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, this was a unique study that found that even comparatively low levels of alcohol exposure could have a significant impact. The results from this study, she said could be significant in supporting the recommendation of abstaining from alcohol totally during pregnancy.

The term Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or FAS was coined in 1973 when it was seen that consumption of alcohol during pregnancy could seriously harm the unborn babies. FAS typically leads to facial feature changes including thinner upper lip, flatter face and a shorter space between the eyes. In recent years with the advocacy of an occasional glass of red wine for health, some mothers have been indulging now and then. This study points in the direction of abstinence again, say researchers.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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