Why aspiring parents should avoid drinking alcohol

Henrietta Brewer
October 4, 2019

When couples are trying for a baby, men should abstain from alcohol at least six months before fertilization and women at least one year, according to new research.

To see if alcohol influences those cardiac issues, Jiabi Qin, a researcher at Central South University in Changsha, China, and his colleagues found 55 previously published papers that examined drinking choices and infant heart health. The illness is the most common birth defect, and can make blood move too slowly or in the wrong direction. Binge drinking (about five or more drinks per sitting) was related to a 52% higher likelihood of these birth defects for men and 16% for women.

Previous studies looking at the link between alcohol consumption before conception and congenital heart disease had focused on moms-to-be, with mixed results.

Drinking alcohol three months before pregnancy or during the first trimester was associated with a 44% raised risk of congenital heart disease for fathers and 16% for mothers, compared to not drinking. For instance, children who are born to fathers over 40 years are more at risk of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.


Alcohol is a teratogen, an agent that causes the malformation of an embryo, and has been connected with fetal alcohol syndrome.

The current study used data on nearly 42,000 babies born with heart defects from 1991 to 2019, drawn from 55 studies. These conditions can increase the likelihood of cardiovascular disease later in life, even after surgical treatment, and are the main cause of perinatal death.

Although scientists note that women who are preparing for pregnancy and already carrying a child should also refrain from alcohol, the role of drinking fathers in the formation of heart disease in the newborn was more significant.

The study, published Thursday in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, was a meta analysis and review of existing studies on the topic, and can only show an association between drinking and birth defects, not a causation. Thus, the lowest percentile of drinking carried a very low, statistically insignificant risk of this condition, but the risk slowly rose with increasingly heavy drinking by one or both parents. In the meantime, Qin says, it's time for a bigger study with expecting parents to make sure that alcohol really is upping the chances of heart defects.


The study also found that, compared to abstinence, maternal drinking was linked to a 20 per cent greater risk of tetralogy of Fallot.

Academics noted that this was an observational study and does not prove an effect. But they added that this study wouldn't be able to establish a cut-off point of "safe" alcohol consumption.

Hopeful mothers and fathers are just going to have to swallow the tricky truth: "Although our investigation has limits ... it does reveal that men and women of all ages planning a family members must give up liquor", Qin states.


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