Natalie Battaglia had a few drinks during her pregnancy and her son had some unusual mannerisms.
Battaglia doesn’t know if alcohol caused her son’s problems, which doctors initially suspected was cerebral palsy.
Increasing evidence shows that even light drinking during pregnancy can affect the fetus.
When Natalie Battaglia finally became pregnant with her first child after over a year of trying, she “enjoyed it like nothing else.” That meant avoiding anything that could harm the baby, including alcohol, except for the occasional half-glass of champagne.
With her second child, however, Battaglia was more relaxed — including alcohol. That time, “when people said to me, ‘Why don’t you just have one?’ or ‘One will do no harm,’ I listened a little more intently,” Battaglia, who at the time ran a shelving business with her husband in Melbourne, Australia, said on a recent episode of the “Knockoff Drinks with a Difference” podcast.
A couple of times during that pregnancy, Battaglia drank a full glass of wine. At least once she had two. It was “definitely enough to feel the effects,” she said.
Nevertheless, she continued the pregnancy and gave birth to a healthy boy in 2017. It was not until about six months after the birth that she noticed unusual behavior in her son which doctors suggested could be related to alcohol use during pregnancy.
Battaglia, who has been a non-drinker since April 2020 and now runs the recipe blog The Mindful Mocktail, shared her story with fellow sober influencer and podcaster Amy Armstrong of Dry But Wet to raise awareness of the potential dangers of drinking even a little while she is pregnant.
Research out this week reinforces her rallying cry, suggesting that less than one drink a week during pregnancy can significantly affect fetal brain development.
“We’ll never know if it was the alcohol that caused our son’s problems, but we’ll never know that it wasn’t,” Battaglia, now 39, told Insider in an email. “From personal experience, I can assure you that a glass of wine or two during pregnancy is not worth the ‘what-ifs.’
Pediatricians questioned whether Battaglia drank during pregnancy
Battaglia’s son would “scissor” his legs instead of keeping them straight, holding his arms up as if he had just won a race.
“I thought it was cute and so funny and so cute,” she said on the podcast. “And it was – until I realized there was a problem, that this wasn’t normal.”
Battaglia took him to the pediatrician, who evaluated him and then asked Battaglia some questions. One of the first was whether she had drunk alcohol while pregnant.
“I just froze. I didn’t expect that question and I lied,” Battaglia said. “I was ashamed and thought, ‘Even if it was the alcohol, there’s nothing I can do about it now anyway, so what’s the point of telling the truth?’
The doctor then consulted another pediatrician, and the couple said they believed Battaglia’s son had cerebral palsy, which describes a group of disorders that affect a person’s mobility. “I was just devastated,” she said.
While alcohol use during pregnancy is not a direct cause of CP, the disorders arise from damage to the brain before or soon after pregnancy. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can damage the developing brain, although there is debate as to how much has an effect.
Drinking during pregnancy can also lead to a baby with a low birth weight, which is a risk factor for cerebral palsy. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FASD), or the range of physical and mental impairments caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy, can also have similar characteristics to cerebral palsy, such as coordination problems.
One study suggested that approximately 8% of children with an FASD have CP.
Since there is no single test for FASD, the most serious of which is fetal alcohol syndrome, it can be difficult to diagnose, especially among mothers who do not disclose that they drink during pregnancy. So while FASDs are estimated to affect up to 1 in 20 children, you rarely hear about people with that diagnosis, Battaglia said.
“It means there are people and kids walking around who probably have an FASD, but they’re undiagnosed, they’re not getting the treatment they need,” said Battaglia, who is now an ambassador for the nonprofit Proof Alliance.
Another doctor asked Battaglia if she drank alcohol while pregnant
Battaglia took her son to another doctor for another evaluation. He also examined her son and then asked if she had been drinking while pregnant. Again she lied. Again, the doctor said he suspected cerebral palsy, although Battaglia’s son was never formally diagnosed.
Battaglia told no one about the doctors’ questions. “I kind of just pushed it away: No, it can’t possibly be the alcohol. Stop being hard on yourself,” she said on the podcast. “I’m one of those people who tends to catastrophize, and I thought I was just overreacting. So I just pushed that thought away.”
Battaglia took her son to a physical therapist every two weeks for a year, practicing the prescribed exercises with him religiously every day. She wondered if her son would ever play with his older brother or even walk. “It was a very dark time in my life and it made me drink more,” she said.
But the therapy worked to help the brain communicate with the limbs properly. He is now developing normally and is not considered to have CP.
There is growing evidence linking drinking during pregnancy to brain changes in the fetus
All major medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Pediatric Association, state that there is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy.
When you drink while pregnant, the alcohol in your bloodstream passes through the umbilical cord to the fetus, which is poorly equipped to metabolize alcohol. It can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
In a recent study, the first to use MRI to measure alcohol’s effects on fetal brain structure and growth in real time, doctors found that less than one alcoholic drink a week changed the developing brain in ways that could lead to problems such as language deficits.
But rules banning alcohol during pregnancy have been criticized by some doctors and parenting experts as paternalistic, and some pregnant patients say health professionals have told them the occasional drink is OK.
The mixed messages are related to the fact that there is not much high-quality evidence on the harms of light alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
In addition, there are studies that find no connection between light or moderate alcohol consumption and developmental challenges in children. Parenting expert and economist Emily Oster has pointed to a Danish study which suggests that up to eight drinks a week during pregnancy have no effect on children’s intelligence or attention level.
But that study and others like it are also flawed, and anecdotes about “success stories” do not guarantee that someone else who drinks during pregnancy will have the same outcome.
Previous research found that of the 10% of pregnant women who drink any amount during pregnancy, one in 13 of their children will have an FASD and one in 67 will have FAS.
“One of our jobs as a parent is to reduce risk,” Battaglia said, “and I feel like I failed my son when I was pregnant by taking that risk.”
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