By Jessica Hamzelou
Drinking even small amounts of alcohol when pregnant seems to have subtle effects on how a baby’s face develops – including the shape of their eyes, nose and lips. This isn’t necessarily harmful, though.
“We don’t know if the small changes in the children’s facial shape are connected in any way to differences in their development,” says Jane Halliday of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Victoria, Australia, who led the research. “We plan to look at this as the children grow.”
Heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, which is characterised by distinctive facial features, such as small eye openings, a short up-turned nose, and a smooth philtrum over the upper lip. Children with this condition are likely to have attention and behavioural disorders, as well as a lower IQ, says Halliday.
To find out whether low levels of alcohol consumption, which are more common in pregnancy, might also affect developing fetuses, Halliday’s team studied 1570 women throughout their pregnancies and births. Of these women, 27 per cent said they continued to drink at least some alcohol while pregnant.
When the children were 1 year old, Halliday’s team took photos of 415 of the babies’ faces with multiple cameras from different angles. When the team stitched these images together using computer software, the resulting 3D photographs detailed almost 70,000 points on each baby’s face. Analysing these revealed subtle differences in the faces of babies whose mothers had drunk alcohol compared with those whose mothers hadn’t. These included a slightly shorter, more-upturned nose.
There was still a difference once the team took into account other factors that might affect face shape, such as sex and weight. Even low levels of alcohol – such as no more than two drinks on any one occasion, and no more than seven a week – were linked to changes in face shape. However, these changes could be detected only by using the imaging technique, and were not visible to the naked eye.
“The results are telling us that there is some effect, albeit fairly subtle,” says Halliday. The effects might not be lasting, she adds, because an infant’s face changes a lot in the first two years of life.
No need to worry
Halliday says women who have drunk a little when pregnant shouldn’t worry. “At this stage, we have not identified any problems for people to worry about,” she says. Even if the alcohol has had some effect, many other factors have an influence on a baby’s health and development, such as nutrition.
Halliday hopes 3D photography might one day help to diagnose mild cases of fetal alcohol disorders in babies. “If a child is showing some signs of a behavioural disorder and it is not known if they had been exposed to alcohol, this could provide evidence that alcohol exposure has occurred,” she says.
Christina Chambers at the University of California, San Diego, agrees. “Fetal alcohol syndrome is a huge problem worldwide and it is widely under-recognised or misdiagnosed,” she says. “This could help us identify kids that might be affected and understand the full spectrum of effects.”
There is more to learn, adds Chambers. We still don’t know what protects some babies from the harmful effects of alcohol, for example. “Some women will have a quart of vodka a day and have children with no fetal alcohol syndrome,” she says.
Health organisations generally recommend that pregnant women avoid alcohol entirely, but many women drink before realising they are pregnant – which is often a month or two into a pregnancy.
“We don’t know of a safe lower threshold,” says Chambers. “The recommendation to avoid alcohol in pregnancy is a wise one.”