Drinking or smoking at any time during pregnancy, even a little bit, can change the brain development of an infant, according to the findings of a new study.
Researchers from Columbia University warn that alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy at any time affects an infant’s neurodevelopment, which can lead to learning disabilities and other problems.
In a report published this week in the journal JAMA Network Open, researchers evaluated data on 1,700 mother-newborn pairs from the Safe Passage Study from December 2011 through August 2015. Pregnant women were recruited form clinical sites in Cape Town, South Africa, and the Northern Plains region of the U.S. Infants had to be born before 37 weeks or more than 41 weeks gestation.
Mothers’ self-reported alcohol and nicotine use were quantified via daily questionnaire, including how often they drank, how much, type, brand, and container size. They also reported the last day they smoked, how often, and the number of cigarettes.
Infants underwent an electroencephalogram (EEG) within a few days of birth. The EEG was conducted during sleep at 12 scalp locations. It is a noninvasive measure of cortical function and has been used to examine effects of in utero exposures and associations with neurodevelopment.
Researchers were able to determine drinking and smoking lead to an alteration in the development of brain processes that can be quantified during sleep when babies are just a few days of age.
Both smoking and drinking were associated with decreased neonatal EEG power. Alcohol use during pregnancy was linked with increased low-frequency brain activity at temporal electrode sites. Moderate or high continuous tobacco use was associated with decreased high-frequency brain activity at central electrode sites.
Any level of smoking or drinking, even small amounts and use early on and quitting, was linked with impaired newborn brain development.
Infants of mothers who had low levels of alcohol or tobacco exposure still experienced some changes in brain activity, leading researchers to conclude there is no safe level of drinking or smoking during pregnancy.
Some people believe a few drinks early in pregnancy or one or two in the third trimester will have no effect to the baby. They refrain from regular and frequent use as their doctors’ recommend, but they might choose to have one drink now and again.
The new study emphasizes this is a misconception and there is no confirmed safe level of alcohol or tobacco use during pregnancy.
Prenatal alcohol exposure is the leading cause of preventable intellectual disability in children. Smoking during pregnancy is one of the most modifiable causes of post-birth disease and death.
Smoking and drinking during pregnancy can affect specific areas of a baby’s brain, can impair their ability to regulate their heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and temperature. Smoking and drinking during pregnancy can also lead to delayed speech and other disabilities later in childhood.
The new study warns there is no safe level and a pregnant women should refrain from smoking and drinking completely.