Light Drinking During Pregnancy Does Not Impair Socioemotional or Cognitive Abilities of Children

It has been well documented that drinking alcohol heavily during pregnancy can have dangerous consequences to the developing fetus and throughout the life of the child.  These consequences include fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which may develop as mental retardation, emotional and behavioral problems, learning disabilities, heart and face defects (and often other organs), or most severely, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which is often a combination of many of these FASD symptoms.  Studies have shown that even a small amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy can have detrimental effects on the development and behavior of the child.

Converse to the studies presenting many negative effects of alcohol consumption on the developing fetus and later, child, a study by a British group published in 2010 shed some new, positive, light on the subject.   According to the research group, light drinking by the mothers during pregnancy showed no increased risk of socioemotional difficulties or cognitive deficiencies for children at five years of age.  This study was a follow-up on an earlier study by the same group, showing that light drinking by the mothers during pregnancy also showed no risk of socioemotional difficulties for children at three years of age.

(Side note:  I realize this study came out last year, however, I’ve yet to review it and find it extremely fascinating, so if you have already heard of the study, I hope you’ll enjoy the post anyway!).

It is possible that drinking during pregnancy may still result in a successful completion to term, and initially no emotional or behavioral defects in the child.  However, some studies have suggested that drinking alcohol during pregnancy has a sort of “sleeper” effect, in that effects of the alcohol consumption while in utero would not emerge until later into childhood.  After the authors of the study under review today found no effect of light drinking on three year olds whose mothers had consumed alcohol during pregnancy, they decided to follow-up with five year olds, to determine if this “sleeper” effect was true.


The Millennium Cohort Study was used for this analysis, which includes children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002.  Since it has been shown that behavioral and cognitive issues and drinking during pregnancy are tied in one way or another to ethnicity and multiple births, only Caucasian babies who were the only child in the family were used (in order to decrease variability).

Drinking habits were self-reported by the mothers via questionnaires, and at the age of five, home visits were conducted with the children in order to determine cognitive abilities, social and emotional behaviors, socioeconomic factors, and finally the psychosocial environment of the family.  Women were broken down into the following drinking categories, based on their self-reported responses:  never drinker; drinker, but not during pregnancy; light drinkers (no more than 1-2 units per week or per occasion); moderate drinkers (not more than 3-6 units per week or 3-5 units per occasion); heavy/binge drinkers (7 or more units per week, or 6 or more units per occasion).  A unit was classified as a half a pint of beer, a glass of wine, or a single measure of liquor/spirit.

Behavioral and emotional problems were analyzed using the strengths and difficulties questionnaire (SDQ), a test which has been shown to be a relatively accurate measurement of hyperactivity and attention problems.  Cognitive abilities were measured using widely validated tests from the British ability scale (BAS): naming vocabulary, picture similarities, and pattern construction were the three parts of the test.  Confounding factors, such as socioeconomic and family psychosocial interactions, were teased out in order to help remove some potentially influential variation in the results.


  •       5.9% of mothers in the study never drank alcohol, 60.2% did not drink during pregnancy, 25.9% were light drinkers, 5.5% were moderate drinkers, and 2.5% were heavy/binge drinkers.
  •       Light drinkers were more socioeconomically advantaged than all other drinkers/nondrinkers
  •       Boys were more likely than girls to have high total difficulties, conduct problems, hyperactivity, and peer problems.
  •       Girls had higher mean cognitive ability scores than boys.
  •       Boys and girls born to light drinkers were less likely to have total difficulties and hyperactivity scores than those children born to mothers who did not drink during pregnancy, though differences were weakened when socioeconomic factors were taken into consideration.
  •       Boys born to light drinkers had higher mean cognitive test scores compared to those born to mothers who did not drink during pregnancy, and remained significant when socioeconomic factors were taken into consideration.
  •       Girls born to light drinkers had higher mean scores on naming vocabulary and pattern construction than those born to mothers who did not drink during pregnancy, though differences were weakened when socioeconomic factors were taken into consideration.
  •       Children born to heavy/binge drinking mothers were more likely to have hyperactivity, conduct, and emotional problems, compared to all other drinking categories.

Summary and Discussion

The results of this study appear to show that five year old children born to light drinkers showed no increased risk of socioemotional difficulties or cognitive defects compared to mothers who did not drink during their pregnancy.  After taking socioeconomic factors into consideration, it was still found that boys born to light drinkers had higher cognitive ability scores compared to those born to mothers who did not drink during pregnancy.

It’s interesting that some of the results mentioned above became non-significant when socioeconomic factors were taken into consideration.  It has been shown that children’s social and emotional behaviors, as well as cognitive abilities, are strongly influenced by the social environments, which include the mental health of the parents, and the interactions between the child’s caregivers and the child.  This study found that mothers who were light drinkers were also more likely to be more socioeconomically advanced, thereby it is likely that the children born of these mothers would be more socioemotional and cognitively advanced compared to others.  When these factors were taken into consideration, most of the differences seen among light drinkers compared to non-drinkers were nullified, which would support the theory that socioeconomic status and the interactions therein may have a large influence on a child’s socioemotional status and cognitive abilities than the alcohol consumption by the mother during pregnancy.

Even after socioeconomic factors were taken into consideration, none of the results became worse for light drinkers.  In fact, the results for light drinkers were still on par with those who did not drink during pregnancy, or in the case of boy having higher cognitive abilities, remained significantly better.  Therefore, the authors statement that light drinking does not increase the risk of social, emotional, or cognitive damage appears to be accurate.  However, due to the overwhelming number of studies stating the opposite, more work needs to be done to clarify the issue.

In other studies dealing with other aspects of health, we’ve seen differences in the types of alcohol consumed and health benefits or consequences.  It would be fascinating to determine if the results of this and other studies have been confounded by this issue, in that one or more types of alcoholic beverages may be more detrimental during pregnancy than others.  Studies have shown that those with higher socioeconomic statuses drink more wine, and in this study, we see that light drinkers tend to have high socioeconomic statuses, therefore I wonder if it is in fact wine that does not have any negative effects during pregnancy whereas other types of alcohol might, since this is likely the primary drink of choice for those light drinkers. This would be a great study that I feel needs to be done.

In the meantime, since based on conflicting results of this and other studies, it is still unclear whether or not a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy is damaging in one way or another to the baby.  Therefore, I would recommend, the doctor that I am not, that one would refrain from drinking any alcohol during pregnancy until more research is done confirming or refuting some of these ideas.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this controversial topic.  Please feel free to comment below!
I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!

3 comments for “Light Drinking During Pregnancy Does Not Impair Socioemotional or Cognitive Abilities of Children

  1. August 2, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    My mother recently confessed to having had a single glass of wine while pregnant with me. And I turned out just fine, I think!

    Interestingly, I've since come to learn about an old rumor in Italy (where she and my dad were on vacation at the time) that it's okay for pregnant women to drink Dolcetto, a soft, approachable red from Piedmont. The alcohol levels in Dolcetto are no lower than other red wines, though, so I doubt this has any scientific merit. But then again, who knows.

    Guess my mom decided to roll the dice…

  2. August 2, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Thanks for reading, and sharing your experience with us, Jason!

    I can't say for sure, but I would imagine drinking a small glass of wine every so often while pregnant is not such a rare event in these regions where wine has deep cultural roots. I'd be willing to bet that rumor you heard about in Italy isn't so much a rumor as it is commonplace (though, if any Italians out there know differently, please share and correct us!).

    Sounds like you turned out to be just fine, so having a glass of wine while pregnant can't always be bad!

  3. sarahoconnor95
    February 28, 2012 at 3:33 am

    It’s great that further studies are being done regarding drinking while pregnant but that doesn’t mean that it should be done. Taking a risk in these situations or when it comes to baby products is not entirely ideal.

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