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More Kids Affected by Alcohol in the Womb Than Originally Thought, Study Says

Photograph by Twenty20

The number of children affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (i.e., abnormal growth and facial features, intellectual disabilities and behavioral problems) might be higher than initially thought, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

When it comes to the effects on children, the new study's more conservative estimate claims that one in 20 American kids fall somewhere on the spectrum of disorders caused by maternal drinking. However, using a different approach, researchers now believe that as many as one in 10 children may be affected, according to CNN.

"We have long thought and believed that estimates that we had previously in the U.S. were pretty gross underestimates," said Christina Chambers, one of the study's authors and a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. "It's not an easy disorder to recognize."

To prove their theory, researchers visited both public and private schools in four U.S. regions and tested students for cognitive and behavioral problems. In addition, they interviewed mothers about their alcohol use and analyzed the growth and facial features of each child.

In total, Chambers and her colleagues identified 222 first graders who showed signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders­, despite the fact that only two of the children had been previously diagnosed. There were 27 cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, 104 with partial fetal alcohol syndrome and 91 with alcohol-related neuro-developmental disorder.

When it comes to maternal drinking, one in 10 pregnant women (aged 18 to 44) consumed at least one alcoholic beverage over the course of a 30-day period, according to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately a third of those women also admitted to binge-drinking during that time.

Researchers identified 222 first graders who showed signs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders­, despite the fact that only two of the children had been previously diagnosed.

Susan Astley, director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnostic and Prevention Network at the University of Washington, however, is skeptical of the study. She is convinced that schools are the wrong place to host a study on fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Screening for (fetal alcohol spectrum disorders) isn't like screening for scoliosis,” she tells CNN. “It's difficult to ... just start asking moms and dads about their drinking."

Astley also believes that Chambers and her colleagues used criteria that stretched "down into the normal range" to identify fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. If her complaint is true, it could mean that some of the data were overestimates.

Despite Astley’s efforts to poke holes in the study, Chambers insists that her team used multiple criteria to diagnose these disorders, "some more stringent than others." She adds that the criteria used were a "reasonable balance" between identifying kids with the disorder and avoiding false positives.

Regardless of measurement differences, Astley and Chambers do agree on one thing: This type of research is of great value when it comes to educating expectant mothers, preventing new cases and improving current treatments.

"Our hope that what this will do is raise this to the level on the national agenda where we think it should be," Chambers concludes.

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