Public Release: 

Supportive mothers ease harm of prenatal alcohol exposure

Center for Advancing Health

Children whose mothers drank alcoholic beverages during pregnancy have difficulty relating to their mothers and may have a harder time coping with the problems of daily life, according to new research.

However, mothers who gave their children a lot of support were able to counteract the effect of alcohol exposure by helping them develop good coping skills, show study results published in the October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

"Higher levels of alcohol exposure, in conjunction with concomitant environmental risk factors, may be associated with higher levels of insecurity," says lead author Mary J. O'Connor, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine.

The researchers define attachment security as a child's use of the parent as a secure stepping stone for both comfort and exploration. "Inherent in measures of attachment is the question of how a child responds to stress or frustration and uses available resources to self-regulate," O'Connor says.

O'Connor and colleagues explain that problems common in infants exposed to alcohol in utero, such as irritability, low responsiveness to social stimulation, poor sleeping patterns and crying, can set the stage for future mother-child interaction problems and attachment issues.

Their study assessed 42 mothers, most of whom had low incomes and were black, and their children for attachment and coping skills, both in a laboratory setting and a home setting. The children were between the ages of 3 and 5 and none were diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, a disorder involving neurological damage from prenatal alcohol exposure.

The women were categorized into two groups depending on how much they drank during their pregnancy. Abstinent-light drinkers had one or fewer drinks at a time, while moderate-heavy drinkers had two or more at a sitting.

Thirty-six percent of the children of the abstinent-light drinkers were considered to have insecure attachments to their mothers, while 80 percent of the children of moderate-heavy drinkers were insecure.

However, even among children with mothers who drank a lot during pregnancy, a mother's emotional supportiveness led to her child developing good coping skills -- better than those of children with mothers who drank little but were unsupportive, the researchers found.

"It appears that while prenatal alcohol exposure may be associated with increased risk for the development of a difficult temperament in childhood, if the mother is able to respond to the child in a supportive, nurturing manner, the child may be more able to deal with frustration and stress and may be more likely to develop secure attachment relationships," O'Connor says.

The researchers found that, because many of the mothers had stopped drinking, their drinking patterns after pregnancy were not related to coping skills or attachment behavior, despite previous research that has shown the children of alcoholics tend not to trust adults for help.


The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Office for Research on Minority Health.

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