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Maternal drinking linked to poor child academic achievement

Media release

Curtin University researchers have found consuming alcohol during pregnancy can adversely affect a child’s reading, writing and spelling abilities, with the type of learning problem observed dependent upon the trimester in which the exposure occurred.

Dr Colleen O’Leary, lead researcher in the collaborative project, said although it was already known that drinking had a negative impact on a child’s development, her study examined the dose, pattern, and timing of exposure and the subsequent outcomes for children aged eight and nine.

“Current research shows that children exposed to alcohol prenatally have an increased risk of developmental problems such as language delay, behaviour problems, learning and memory and cognitive deficits,” Dr O’Leary, Curtin Research Associate in the Centre for Population Health Research, said.

“Our study looked at the relationships between how much, how often and the timing of drinking during pregnancy and the subsequent effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on children achieving the national benchmarks in reading, writing, spelling and numeracy in their third year of school.

“Results showed exposure to heavy levels of alcohol – more than seven standard drinks per occasion, multiple times in a week – during the first trimester of pregnancy more than doubled the odds of not achieving the national reading benchmark.

“And children of mothers who reported occasional binge drinking – more than 50 grams (five standard drinks) per occasion – in late pregnancy were twice as likely to have writing scores below the national benchmark than children whose mothers hadn’t engaged in this behaviour.”

The study is the first population-based study that links education test data to examine the effect of prenatal alcohol exposure on educational achievement and provides evidence that prenatal alcohol exposure at binge and heavy levels increases the risk of specific learning problems for children.

A total of 4056 children were randomly selected from infants born to non-Indigenous women in Western Australia between 1995 and 1997. The children’s survey data were linked with their birth record from the Western Australian Midwives’ Notification System and their year 3 test results from the Western Australian Literacy and Numeracy Assessment statewide education testing program.

The research paper, titled “Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Educational Achievement in Children Aged 8-9 Years”, was published in Pediatrics; Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics and is available from

The study was done in collaboration with researchers from the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, The University of Western Australia and University of Oxford.