By Lisa Rapaport
(Reuters Health) – Fathers who drink alcohol in the months just before their child is conceived are more likely to have a baby with heart defects than those who abstain prior to conception, a recent study suggests.
When fathers do drink in the three months prior to conception, babies are 44% more likely to have congenital heart defects than when they don’t, the study found. And when fathers had drinking binges – more than five drinks on a single occasion – babies were 52% more likely to have heart defects.
When mothers drank during that pre-conception period or during the first three months of pregnancy, babies had a 16% increased risk of congenital heart defects. The increased risk was similar if mothers were binge drinkers.
“Binge drinking by would-be parents is a high risk and dangerous behavior that not only may increase the chance of their baby being born with a heart defect, but also greatly damages their own health,” said Jiabi Qin, senior author of the study and a researcher at Xiangya School of Public Health at Central South University in Changsha, China.
The study results suggest that men should stop drinking alcohol at least six months before trying to conceive, and that women should stop at least one year before trying to have a baby, Qin said in a statement.
Congenital heart defects are the most common birth defects and a leading cause of infant deaths late in pregnancy and in the first weeks of life, researchers note in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. These defects involve structural abnormalities in the heart that can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life even when children have surgery to correct the defects.
While some previous research has linked parental drinking prior to conception and during pregnancy to an increased risk of congenital heart defects, results have been mixed and focused mainly on mothers, not fathers, the study team notes.
For the current study, researchers analyzed data from 55 previous studies that included a total of 41,747 babies with congenital heart defects plus a total of 297,587 infants without these defects.
Mothers’ drinking might contribute to genetic changes in babies that cause heart defects, some previous research suggests. While this might also be true for fathers, less is known about the association between paternal drinking and birth defects, the study team notes.
One limitation of the analysis is that the included studies weren’t designed to test for differences in the risk of heart defects for paternal versus maternal alcohol consumption, said Dr. Thomas Zegkos, coauthor of an accompanying editorial and a cardiologist at AHEPA University Hospital in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Even so, there are plenty of good reasons for men and women to cut back on drinking when trying to conceive, Zegkos said by email.
“This study also confirms that even low amounts of alcohol confer an increased risk for congenital heart defects,” Zegkos said.
“Therefore, alcohol abstinence is advised before conception and during pregnancy,” Zegkos added. “If a complete abstinence is not feasible then a strategy that ‘lower consumption is better’ should be implemented.”