You might think that by abstaining from alcohol when you're trying to conceive, and certainly as soon as you get pregnant, you're protecting your baby. And yes, turning down every last drop of alcohol while you're pregnant is a hugely important step you can take to maximize your chances of having a healthy baby—but if recent research is any indication, it might not be enough.
According to a 2016 study, a baby can be born with a fetal alcohol condition even if her mother has never had a sip of alcohol. How? It has everything to do with the father's alcohol consumption. The 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.
Here's a breakdown of the study's key findings, which weren't limited to alcohol-related conditions: 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. For the best health for the entire family, it's always (better for dads) to drink in moderation. If the woman is pregnant and carrying a fetus, she should not be drinking at all."