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Fathers’ Drinking May Affect Fertility and Fetal Brain Development

Historically, only women’s drinking was considered a risk during pregnancy, but new research points to the role of fathers’ habits as well

Young Mom and Dad sitting on a couch holding a newborn baby.

Little to no attention has been given to the father’s potential contribution to fetal alcohol syndrome disorders.

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The following essay is reprinted with permission from , an online publication covering the latest research.

Men drink more, are more likely to binge drink and are almost four times  than women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet when it comes to diagnosing babies born with birth defects associated with alcohol consumption, such as , historically only the .


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Research clearly shows that  – meaning heritable shifts in the way genes are expressed that don’t result from changes in the DNA sequence – that strongly influences fetal development and child health. Yet most doctors and other health care providers do not take into account the influence of paternal health and lifestyle choices on child development.

I am , and my research explores the ways that .

While most of the attention is given to the mom’s drinking while pregnant, my team and I focus on male drinking in the weeks and months before conception. Our studies are the first to demonstrate that male drinking before pregnancy is a  in the development of alcohol-related craniofacial abnormalities and growth deficiencies.

The intense focus on mom

In 1981, the U.S. surgeon general issued a public health warning that  was the cause of physical and mental birth defects in children.

This warning came in response to growing recognition that a group of severe physical and mental impairments in children, now commonly known as fetal alcohol syndrome, were .

Today, doctors and scientists recognize that  of , a term referring to a wide range of , many of which cause lifelong challenges for those affected.

According to the CDC, this syndrome can occur when  passes to the baby through the umbilical cord. This has led to the firmly  belief that alcohol-related birth defects are caused only by maternal alcohol use during pregnancy and are the  fault.

The medical community reinforces this perception by requiring pediatricians to compel mothers to confirm and document their prenatal alcohol use before they can formally diagnose children with  or . Nonetheless, there are multiple documented instances in which children diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome were born to mothers who denied that they consumed alcohol during pregnancy.

For example, in one study, 41 mothers denied having consumed  despite their child receiving a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome. In this circumstance and  over the past 40 years, the  is that these mothers lied about their alcohol use during pregnancy.

According to the CDC, there is  during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant. Despite this recommendation,  is widely reported.

However, reported drinking levels do not directly correlate with a child developing alcohol-related birth defects, and not all women who drink give birth to children with fetal alcohol syndrome. This contradiction has resulted in  public .

Although differences in how much and when pregnant women drink can contribute to the variation in how fetal alcohol syndrome develops, these factors alone cannot explain the wide range and severity of symptoms. Therefore, unknown factors beyond maternal alcohol use must contribute to this debilitating disorder.

Dad is the missing piece

Alcohol is a social drug, so when women drink, they often do so with their male partner. Building from this perspective, my laboratory used a mouse model to determine .

Fetal alcohol syndrome is associated with : facial abnormalities, including small eyes and malformations in the middle of the face; reduced growth of the head and brain; and fetal growth restriction, a condition that occurs when babies are born smaller than average. Building on a previous study in humans, we used facial recognition software to study the effects of alcohol consumption on the faces of mice born to mothers, fathers or both parents who consumed alcohol before conception.

In a study published early this year, we captured a . We then digitally assigned facial landmarks, including specific parts of the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The computer program then determined if maternal, paternal or dual parental alcohol exposures changed the proportional relationships between each of these landmarks.

Our study using this mouse model revealed that chronic male alcohol exposure affects the . We also observed , the underdevelopment of the head and brain, as well as lower birth weight, which became worse the more the male parent drank.

Therefore, our studies demonstrate that chronic male alcohol exposure – defined as consuming more than five drinks per day in a four-hour window – could drive all three of the core fetal alcohol syndrome birth defects.

Using this same mouse model, we also determined that these . Specifically, we identified abnormalities in the jaw and the size and spacing of the adult teeth. Abnormal alignment of the upper and lower teeth is another .

Besides our research, other studies have identified  of male mice who regularly consume alcohol. In addition, clinical studies suggest that paternal drinking  in people.

Effects on male fertility and pregnancy

Our studies also support more  and the ability of couples to . These observations may be especially relevant for couples struggling to have children.

The CDC estimates that about 2% of all babies born in the U.S. are . While the focus of in-vitro fertilization treatments , our studies reveal that male alcohol exposure decreases the chance of becoming pregnant after undergoing IVF.

Significantly, our research showed that the more a man drinks before providing sperm, the  – in some cases, by almost 50%.

Looking ahead

Annual estimates suggest that the cumulative costs of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders to the health care and educational systems range from . Given these exorbitant costs and the devastating lifelong effects on affected individuals, ignoring paternal drinking habits in public health messaging overlooks a significant contributing factor.

The first published investigations into the effects of maternal exposure to toxins on birth defects in the 1950s and ’60s were met with skepticism and disbelief. Today, it is widely accepted that  cause birth defects.

I fully anticipate that some within the medical and scientific communities, as well as the public, will forcefully deny that paternal drinking matters. However, until doctors start asking the father about his drinking, we will never fully know the contributions of paternal alcohol exposure to birth defects and child health.

This article was originally published on . Read the .