Posted: Apr 20, 2014 12:00 AM
 
Any mom can tell you there is a tremendous amount of pressure to make healthy choices when you're pregnant. One of the biggest no-nos in our society is an expectant mother's alcohol consumption, for fear she might inflict the baby with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). But a surprising new study in mice proves that Dad's inebriated sperm can also be to blame.
Photo credit: Sally Anscombe/Flickr/Getty Images

When you hear of a baby being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), what's your first thought? I have to admit, my immediate reaction used to be, "Shame on her." Shame on that mom for drinking so much when everyone knows a pregnant mom's alcohol consumption can cause birth defects. How selfish. Super judgy, I know.

It turns out, however, that not only is that line of thinking judgy, but also possibly ignorant to the extreme.

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders are indeed caused by alcohol consumption, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can manifest in many ways, including:

  • Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip (this ridge is called the philtrum)
  • Small head size
  • Shorter-than-average height
  • Low body weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty in school (especially with math)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech and language delays
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills
  • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys or bones

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome represents the most severe end of the FASD spectrum. The presence of FASDs in children is most heartbreaking because it's completely preventable. Up until now, moms bore the brunt of the pressure to refrain from drinking, and the blame for any disabilities related to alcohol consumption. But a new study out of Korea proves that a host of disabilities can result from the father's alcohol consumption. Even if he's not an alcoholic. Even if the mother never drank a drop.

FAS when Mom never drank

The male mice in the study were exposed to alcohol for seven weeks, in varying concentrations, but they were given no alcohol the week before mating. The females were never exposed to alcohol.

They concluded that paternal alcohol exposure prior to conception causes developmental defects in the next generation.

"The number of embryos per mouse was counted and embryo body weights measured. The study’s authors found 'severe fetal abnormalities,' including a disorder called exencephaly, where the brain is located outside the skull. The researchers said the incidence of developmental abnormalities by alcohol use was 'statistically significant,'” according to examiner.com. "They concluded that paternal alcohol exposure prior to conception causes developmental defects in the next generation. Transgenerational toxicity — a health effect that occurs when a pollutant or toxic substance passes from a parent to an offspring — caused by paternal alcohol exposure 'is possibly mediated through alcohol-induced changes in sperm' at the DNA level."

Dad's choices matter more than ever

Tom Donaldson of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS) points out that dads have never been free of responsibility when it comes to FAS. "The father’s lifestyle and his support of the mother are always important prior to and during pregnancy because he can have a significant influence on the mother’s choices and her physical and behavioral health. If further research confirms that a man’s alcohol intake has harmful effects on his sperm production that can result in physical and/or functional birth defects in his offspring, it will have profound implications on public health and recommendations for preconception health."

The father’s lifestyle and his support of the mother are always important prior to and during pregnancy because he can have a significant influence on the mother’s choices and her physical and behavioral health.

There will certainly be more studies on the link between a father's drinking and FAS. But it might not be wise to wait for public policy to change… talk to your partner about these new findings, and if you're trying to conceive, it might be time for Dad to take a break from the nightly beer.

More on conception

Infertility induced anxiety
The biggest fears about getting pregnant
Is IVF linked to birth defects?

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