Researchers from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Australia, analysed photographs of 415 babies’ faces to look for subtle changes associated to alcohol consumption.
The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found alcohol-exposed children tended to have a more “sunken mid-face” and a turned-up nose.
The authors concluded: “The results of this study suggest that even low levels of alcohol consumption can influence development of the foetus and confirm that the first trimester is a critical period.”
Researchers recruited mothers in their first trimester of pregnancy between January 2011 and December 2014.
They analysed the faces of 195 girls and 220 boys who had been exposed to a full range of alcohol - from binge drinking to low-level drinking in the first trimester.
Each child was photographed from different angles when they turned one.
When analysing the images, researchers found “significant” differences in the face shapes of children whose mothers who didn’t drink alcohol during pregnancy compared to children who had been exposed to alcohol.
Differences were mainly found around the mid-face, nose, lips, and eyes.
Babies who experienced low exposure to alcohol tended to only show differences in their forehead size.
Babies with moderate to high exposure to alcohol showed differences in their eyes, chin, and head. Babies who were exposed to binge drinking in the first trimester had different shaped chins.
The authors wrote: “Although the clinical significance of our findings is yet to be determined, these findings support the conclusion that, for women who are, or may become pregnant, avoiding alcohol is the safest option.”
“However, the direct correlation between alcohol consumption in pregnancy and a change in the facial features of the unborn child may well be due to a variety of factors and more research would be needed in order to understand more.
“The most important takeaway is that there is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy and as such it is best avoided altogether.”
“Distinctive facial features” such as small eyes, a thin upper lip, and a smooth area between the nose and upper lip are symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), but this study suggests they may also be present in babies without the condition.
Babies with FAS may also experience movement and coordination problems, learning difficulties and problems with their liver, kidneys and heart, the NHS states.
The NHS advises: “If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all to keep risks to your baby to a minimum.
“Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby, with the more you drink, the greater the risk.”