Prospective parents—but especially dads—might be wise to avoid too much alcohol, according to a new study out this week. It suggests that women and men who binge drink in the months before conception are more likely to have children with congenital heart defects, with the father’s alcohol consumption surprisingly having a greater impact on the future child’s heart health.
The study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, is a review of the existing research looking at the link between parental drinking and congenital heart disease in newborns, the most common type of birth defect. While pregnant women have long been told to avoid drinking, there’s been considerably less attention paid to whether a father’s drinking can affect the quality of his sperm and subsequently the health of his child.
As expected, the researchers did find a clear connection between reported drinking in mothers pre-conception as well as during pregnancy and the likelihood of their children being born with heart disease. But the highest associated risks were actually seen with fathers. The risk of any heart defect was 55 percent higher for a child if their father was a regular binge drinker in the three months before conception (compared to abstinence), for instance, while only having a mother drink heavily during that same time period was associated with a 16 percent higher risk.
There’s been controversy over just how meaningful the health risks of drinking are for pregnant women. It isn’t clear, for instance, whether a mother’s light-to-moderate drinking actually increases the risk of birth defects. In this review, the authors didn’t find a noticeable connection between drinking and congenital heart disease among women who reported “low-dose exposures” of alcohol a day. But they added that this study wouldn’t be able to establish a cut-off point of “safe” alcohol consumption.
At the same time, we already know that binge drinking during pregnancy (defined as having five drinks in one session) is definitely bad for the fetus. And it’s not an abstract risk either, since about 8 percent of all live births end up having a congenital heart defect. There’s also been some research suggesting that even moderate drinking can affect the sperm quality of otherwise healthy men. Given the new findings, the authors suggest that both men and women abstain from at least binge drinking for up to six months before deciding to conceive.
“Binge drinking by would-be parents is a high risk and dangerous behaviour that not only may increase the chance of their baby being born with a heart defect, but also greatly damages their own health,” said study author Jiabi Qin, a researcher at Central South University’s Xiangya School of Public Health in China, in a statement released by the study’s publisher.