(HealthDay News) — As many as one in 20 U.S. children may have health or behavioral problems related to alcohol exposure before birth, according to new research published online Oct. 27 in Pediatrics.

Philip May, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues selected a nationally representative town in the Midwest for the study. The town had an average annual alcohol consumption rate about 14 percent higher than the rest of the United States. The town had 32 schools with a total of 2,033 first-graders. About 70 percent of the parents allowed their children to participate in the study.

May’s team identified first-graders who had a developmental problem or were below the 25th percentile for height, weight, or head circumference. Then the researchers administered cognitive and behavioral tests to these children and to a comparison group of typically developing first-graders. They also assessed the children for the physical attributes of fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, which include small eye openings, a smooth upper lip, a thin red border to the upper lip, and smaller heads. The researchers found that six to nine of every 1,000 children had fetal alcohol syndrome. And, between 11 and 17 per 1,000 children had partial fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Knowing not to drink during pregnancy and not doing so are two different things,” especially before a woman knows she is pregnant, May told HealthDay. He said the high prevalence of children affected by drinking during pregnancy may be due to social pressures or women’s difficulty in changing their drinking habits.

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