Drinking during pregnancy linked to offspring depression

Maternal drinking may be causal, rather than due to confounding by other factors.


Past studies have suggested that babies exposed to alcohol in the womb have a higher risk of a variety of adverse outcomes. Other studies also investigated the link between alcohol use with mental health problems in late adolescence.

A new study by the University of Bristol has found that children of mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy may be at an increased risk of developing depression in late adolescence.

The study aimed to determine whether the frequency mothers and their partners drank alcohol during pregnancy was associated with offspring depression at age 18.

Using the data from Bristol’s Children of the 90s, scientists examined data from a sample of 14,541 pregnant mothers, comprising 4,191 mothers who had consumed alcohol between 18 and 32 weeks of their pregnancy, and diagnoses of depression at age 18 in their children.

They also examined partners drinking. By including partners’ alcohol use (which is unlikely to have a direct biological effect on the developing fetus), the authors were able to examine if associations were likely to be causal or due to shared confounding factors between parents.

Children whose mothers consumed alcohol at 18 weeks pregnant may have up to a 17 percent higher risk of depression at age 18 compared to those mothers who did not drink alcohol.

However, there was little evidence of any association between partner drinking and offspring depression in adolescence.

Dr. Kayleigh Easey, a Senior Research Associate in Genetic Epidemiology and the study’s lead author from Bristol Medical School, explains: “It can be challenging to assess the causal effect of alcohol use in pregnancy, and we have to be careful in the interpretation of results given the sensitivity of alcohol as a risk factor and traditional views around low-level drinking.

“Our study suggests that children whose mothers consumed alcohol at 18 weeks gestation have a higher risk of depression at age 18 compared to those who did not drink alcohol. What was interesting here is that we also investigated paternal alcohol use during pregnancy and did not find a similar association. Many of the indirect factors that could explain the maternal effects are shared between mothers and partners (such as socio-demographic factors); despite this, we only found associations for mothers drinking.”

“This study also illustrates the importance of considering partner behaviors as well as maternal behaviors – both to help identify a causal relationship and because these may be important in their own right.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Association of prenatal alcohol exposure and offspring depression: A negative control analysis of maternal and partner consumption. DOI: 10.1111/acer.14324