AUSTIN (KXAN) — Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the most severe condition of a spectrum of fetal alcohol disorders associated with drinking during pregnancy. And a researcher at Texas A&M University has found a connection between alcohol-related birth defects and a father’s drinking habits before conception. 

Medical professionals have for awhile thought that these conditions were solely a result of a mother’s drinking habits during pregnancy; however, Texas A&M Associate Professor Michael Golding’s research has found that a father’s lifestyle choices can also play a role in these conditions. 

For most of the 1990s, it wasn’t considered risky for expecting moms to drink at any time and at any level during pregnancy. Then in the mid-1970s, physicians began documenting birth-defect disorders associated with prenatal alcohol consumption. It wasn’t until 1981 that the U.S. Surgeon General began advising women to avoid drinking while pregnant. Seven years later, a law was passed, making the warning labels we see today a requirement on all beverages with 0.5% ABV or higher.

FAS is characterized by three key features: a specific facial pattern, growth deficiency and behavioral problems, according to the American Psychological Association. On the other end of the fetal alcohol disorder spectrum, a child may have mild behavioral problems and developmental delays, Golding said. 

Golding said researchers found it curious that there were some mothers who reported drinking nothing (or only a small amount) while pregnant but had children with significant disabilities on the fetal alcohol disorder spectrum. 

”This is something that’s caused us to scratch our heads and really led us to think that we were missing a big component of that picture,” he explained. 

Golding said that in recent years, scientists have established that a male’s environmental exposures can affect his sperm and then the placenta. He said he reviewed the literature and thought that other placental defects in those cases were similar to placental defects in FAS cases.

“So, what we wanted to do here was to test what happens when mom drinks? What happens when dad drinks? And then what happens when both parents drink? And is this something that could perhaps explain the variability we see in fetal alcohol syndrome?” he said. 

Golding and his team conducted research on rodents to test his hypothesis. “The answer we got from our experiments is, ‘Yes, it is absolutely plausible,’” Golding said. 

Next, Golding and his team want to understand when a man should cease drinking to avoid any deleterious effects on the child. Additionally, his team will study the effects of a potential father’s alcohol consumption on sperm viability. 

“When I went with my wife for our medical visits with our OBGYN, they asked what my family history of cancer and diabetes is. And then, at that point, I was told to be quiet and go sit in the corner,” he said. “Well, they then turned their attention to my wife and [asked] ‘What did you have for breakfast for the last two years?’”

“I think what my data really reveals here is that there’s a component of fetal health and development that’s coming through the father — especially his health and his lifestyle choices — that we are not examining.”