Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) affects central nervous system development, growth, and morphology at higher exposure levels. Little is known about the effects of PAE at lower exposure levels or in young adults. Research on children with higher levels of PAE has shown that PAE predicts behavior problems. The question remains whether these effects are permanent or ameliorated by maturation into adulthood.
These data are from a longitudinal study of PAE. Mothers were recruited from a prenatal clinic and interviewed during their fourth prenatal month, seventh month, and delivery. In the postpartum, mothers and offspring were seen at 8 and 18 months, and 3, 6, 10, 14, 16, and 22 years.
At 22 years, PAE significantly predicted behavior as measured with the adult self-report. These findings were significant controlling for covariates. Exposure at each trimester predicted increased behavior problems on the Total Score, Internalizing, Externalizing, Attention, and Critical Items scales. Use across pregnancy predicted a higher rate of behavior problems compared to no use and use in the first trimester only.
The effects were dose-response and significant at each trimester of pregnancy. However, duration across pregnancy was a better predictor than drinking during the first trimester only. Binge drinking was not a better predictor of outcome compared to average daily volume (ADV), and within categories of ADV, binge drinking did not predict more problems than nonbinge drinking. Thus, there is no safe level or safe time during pregnancy for women to drink. These data demonstrate that the effects of PAE, even at low to moderate levels, extend into young adulthood and are most likely permanent.