Natalie Battaglia had a few drinks during pregnancy, and her son had some unusual mannerisms.
Battaglia doesn’t know if alcohol led to her son’s issues, which doctors initially suspected was cerebral palsy.
Increasing evidence shows that even light drinking during pregnancy can affect the fetus.
When Natalie Battaglia finally got pregnant with her first child after over a year of trying, she “cherished it like nothing else.” That meant avoiding anything that could harm the baby, including alcohol, save for the very occasional half-glass of champagne.
With her second child, though, Battaglia was more relaxed — including with alcohol. That time, “when people said to me, ‘Why don’t you just have one?’ or ‘One won’t hurt,’ I listened a little bit more keenly,” 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 few 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.
Still, she carried the pregnancy to term and delivered a healthy baby boy in 2017. It wasn’t until about six months postpartum that she noticed some unusual behaviors in her son that doctors implied could be related to alcohol use in pregnancy.
Battaglia, who’s 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 pregnant .
Research out this week amplifies her rallying cry, suggesting that less than one drink a week in pregnancy can significantly impact fetal brain development.
“We will never know if it was the alcohol that caused my son’s issues, but we will 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-if’s.'”
Pediatricians questioned whether Battaglia drank during pregnancy
Battaglia’s son would “scissor” his legs instead of keeping them straight, and hold up his arms like he’d just won a race.
“I thought that was adorable and so funny and so cute,” she said on the podcast. “And it was — until I realized that there was a problem, that this wasn’t normal.”
Battaglia took him to the pediatrician, who assessed him and then asked Battaglia some questions. One of the first was whether she’d had any alcohol while pregnant.
“I just froze. I wasn’t expecting that question, and I lied,” Battaglia said. “I was ashamed and I thought, ‘Even if it was the alcohol, there’s nothing I can do about it now anyway, so what’s the point in telling the truth?'”
The doctor then consulted with another pediatrician, and the pair said they thought 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 in pregnancy isn’t a direct cause of CP, the disorders come about from damage to the brain before or soon after pregnancy. Alcohol consumption in pregnancy can damage the developing brain, although there’s debate as to how much has an effect.
Drinking in pregnancy can also lead to a low birth weight baby, which is a risk factor for cerebral palsy. Fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASD), or the range of physical and mental impairments caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy, can also have similar characteristics as cerebral palsy, like coordination issues.
One study suggested that about 8% of children with FASD have CP.
Since there’s no single test for FASD, the most severe of which is fetal alcohol syndrome, it can be hard to diagnose, especially among moms who don’t disclose their drinking in pregnancy. So while FASDs are estimated to affect up to 1 in 20 children, you rarely hear of people with that diagnosis, Battaglia said.
“That means there are people and children walking around who likely have an FASD, but they’re undiagnosed, they’re not getting the treatment they need,” Battaglia, who’s now an ambassador for the nonprofit Proof Alliance, said.
A second doctor asked Battaglia if she drank alcohol while pregnant
Battaglia took her son to another doctor for a second opinion. He too examined her son and then asked if she’d drunk while pregnant. Again, she lied. Again, the doctor said he suspected cerebral palsy, although Battaglia’s son was never formally diagnosed.
Battaglia didn’t tell anyone about the doctors’ questions. “I sort of just pushed it away: ‘No, it can’t possibly be the alcohol. Stop being hard on yourself,'” she said on the podcast. “I am one of those people who tend to catastrophize, and I thought I was just overreacting. And so I just pushed that thought away.”
Battaglia took her son to a physical therapist every other week for a year, and practiced the prescribed exercises with him religiously every day. She wondered if her son would ever play with his older brother or even walk. “That was a really dark time in my life, and it made me drink more,” she said.
But the therapy worked to help his brain communicate with his limbs properly. He’s now developing normally, and not considered to have CP.
There is increasing evidence linking drinking in pregnancy with brain changes in the fetus
All major medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Pediatric Association, contend that there is no known safe amount of alcohol in pregnancy.
When you drink while pregnant, the alcohol in the bloodstream passes through the umbilical cord to the fetus, which is ill-equipped to metabolize alcohol. That 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 can lead to problems like language deficits.
But rules to forbid alcohol in pregnancy have been criticized by some doctors and parenting experts as paternalistic, and some pregnant patients say their healthcare professionals have told them the occasional drink is OK.
The mixed messaging is related to the fact that there is not a lot of high-quality evidence on the harms of light alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
Plus, there are studies that find no link between light or moderate alcohol consumption and developmental challenges in children. Parenting expert and economist Emily Oster has pointed to one Danish study that suggests up to eight drinks a week during pregnancy has no effect on children’s intelligence or attention levels.
But that study and others like it have flaws, too, and anecdotes of “success” stories don’t guarantee someone else who drinks in pregnancy will have the same outcome.
Past 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 mitigate risk,” Battaglia said, “and I feel like I failed my son when I was pregnant by taking that risk.”
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