Babies & Beer: A Case of Lost in Translation

I awoke one morning last week to a radio announcer reading the latest news headline:

“Great reports this morning coming out of the UK…A new study says drinking in pregnancy is now safe”, he said.  “Now mum doesn’t always have to be DD (designated driver)”, he joked on.

Despite my fuzzy morning brain, the skeptic in me thought, “Here we go! Yet again, science has been lost in translation”.

When it comes to research and journalism, there is an unspoken war of the worlds.  Researchers spend their days trying to publish studies, describing their work with full disclosure (or at least they ought to).  Journalists, on the other hand, search for bold headlines to capture an audience.  Neither of these goals are wrong, but they can (and often do) collide.  This is especially true when studies are manipulated to become someone’s shot at 15 minutes of fame.

Curious as to what this particular study really discovered, I searched for the original article, found here.  After reading it myself, a much different picture emerged than what was reported.

Rachel Humphriss, a Clinical Scientist in Audiology, studied the impact of drinking alcohol during pregnancy and its effects on balance in the child.  Together with her research team, she followed nearly 7000 mothers over the course of their pregnancies.  She collected information through questionnaires, asking mothers about their alcohol intake, income level, and education, as well as other factors.  Her team also took maternal DNA so that they could compare a gene associated with alcohol intake/metabolism to the final results.

Once the children of these mothers were 10 years old, they were given several balance tests, such as walking on a balance beam.  Among their many findings, what Humphriss discovered was that there was no negative impact on balance from moderate drinking during pregnancy. And oddly enough, some children actually had improved balance measures when their mothers drank.   This last benefit, the authors admitted “although theoretically plausible, [was] likely to have been the product of residual confounding”.  In other words, chance or other factors like wealth and education may have played a part.

Yet despite this chance finding, a quick Google search revealed glamorous titles such as:

  • Pregnant Women Can Drink Moderately Without Harming Baby, Study Says
  • Pregnancy: Moderate Drinking Doesn’t Harm Baby’s Neurodevelopment
  • Moderate Drinking During Pregnancy Not Harmful

Clearly a title like “Light to moderate drinking in a group of British women did not appear to be linked to any issues with balance in their 10 year old child but more research is needed” just wasn’t up to snuff.

When I look at this study, I see no proof to say that alcohol is safe.  I see that it may not impact balance in this one instance, but I know that in other instances it might.  I also know Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a real risk for many babies, and that alcohol can impact development in ways greater than balance.  What about speech development?  Other motor skills?  Emotional and behavioural complications?  Or even physical abnormalities?  None of these were studied here.

More importantly, Humphriss and her team merely studied an association.  This means they wanted to identify if there was a link between alcohol and balance; this study cannot prove cause.   Humphriss discovered that alcohol may not be LINKED with balance issues, but she cannot say with certainty that alcohol will not CAUSE balance issues, nor will it improve it.

Reporting science can be a tricky task, but it is important that it be done correctly.  Many of the news articles I read failed to issue caution with these findings, which is unfortunate since they can carry significant consequences if distorted.

Who would want to be held responsible for an entire generation of babies born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Pregnant mothers should continue to avoid alcohol during pregnancy, as recommended by The Society of Obestetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.  Their 2010 report on alcohol use during pregnancy stated:

There is evidence that alcohol consumption in pregnancy can cause fetal harm

There is insufficient evidence to define any threshold for low-level drinking in pregnancy

Abstinence is the prudent choice for a woman who is or might become pregnant

So as for babies and beer?  Not so fast.  Until there is more research to say otherwise, it is best to avoid alcohol while pregnant.  As the age-old saying goes, better to be safe than sorry.

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