We know a mom-to-be's drinking places her child at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome, but a study shows dads may need to put down the bottle, too.

By Zara Husaini Hanawalt
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Most people assume abstaining from alcohol when trying get pregnant and actively trying to conceive are enough to avoid fetal alcohol conditions after birth. And yes, turning down every last drop of alcohol while pregnant is a hugely important step to take to maximize the chances of having a healthy baby—but if recent research is any indication, it might not be enough.

According to several studies, a baby can be born with a fetal alcohol condition even if her mother has never had a sip of alcohol during pregnancy. How? It has to do with alcohol consumption before conception. And drinking habits of the dad-to-be.

A new study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, suggests drinking alcohol three months before pregnancy was associated with an increased risk of congenital heart disease when compared to not consuming any alcohol at all: 44 percent for fathers-to-be and 16 percent for mothers-to-be. Binge drinking is even worse: Having five or more drinks in one sitting was associated with a 52 percent higher likelihood for men and 16 percent for women.

The study results suggest that women should stop drinking a year before TTC and men should stop six months prior, according to study author Dr. Jiabi Qin, but explained that these results are not a guarantee that alcohol consumption before that time is safe.

A 2016 study, which was published in the American Journal of Stem Cells, details how a father's lifestyle can have an unexpected influence on his child's health. Paternal alcohol use was linked to lower weight at birth, reduction in brain size, and impaired cognitive function. (Additionally, children born to older fathers may have increased risk of developing schizophrenia, autism, and birth defects. And if a man has poor nutrition during his own pre-adolescence, his kids might have a greater risk of heart disease later in life. Children of clinically obese men might have larger fat cells and be more susceptible to obesity and diabetes, and dads with psychosocial stress might pass on behavioral issues to their offspring.)

So, does this mean men who want to have children should never drink? Not quite.

Hansa Bhargava, M.D., a pediatrician who was not associated with the study, weighed in on the findings.  "Though it's not clear how much alcohol can make a difference, there seems to be an association between the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome and father's consumption of alcohol. Until that is known, it's best to be conservative and minimize alcohol intake if you are thinking of having a baby," says Dr. Bhargava. "Both parents are involved in ensuring the best health of the baby before and after delivery."

"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," Dr. Qin said in a statement. The research "does indicate that men and women planning a family should give up alcohol."

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