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Caffeine during pregnancy can affect babies' brain development, study finds

While significant damage isn’t likely, experts encourage pregnant women to limit their caffeine intake

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What women do during pregnancy can affect their babies’ growth and development -- and that includes consuming caffeine.

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center has found that women’s caffeine intake during pregnancy can impact their babies’ brain development. Their findings suggest that serious effects aren’t likely, but the team says steering clear of caffeine during pregnancy can yield the best health outcomes. 

“These are sort of small effects and it’s not causing horrendous psychiatric conditions, but it is causing minimal but noticeable behavioral issues that should make us consider long-term effects of caffeine intake during pregnancy,” said researcher John Foxe, PhD. “I suppose the outcome of this study will be a recommendation that any caffeine during pregnancy is probably not such a good idea.” 

How does caffeine affect brain development?

The researchers came to their conclusions after analyzing MRI brain scans for over 9,100 children between the ages of nine and 10. Over 4,100 mothers had reported consuming caffeine during pregnancy, and the researchers wanted to see how this caffeine exposure affected development.

Ultimately, the researchers observed some noticeable differences between kids who had been exposed to caffeine in the womb versus those who hadn’t. Kids exposed to caffeine in utero were more likely to struggle with paying attention and had more issues acting out, which the researchers linked with changes to white matter in their brains. White matter serves two important functions: it connects different parts of the brain, and it is also responsible for developing the ability to learn new things. When it becomes compromised due to early caffeine exposure, the researchers say these attention and behavioral issues are more likely.

The researchers also hypothesize that infants are unable to process caffeine in the same way that adults do while in utero. This, in turn, can affect healthy brain development and trigger hyperactivity. 

“What makes this unique is that we have a biological pathway that looks different when you consume caffeine through pregnancy,” said researcher Dr. Zachary Christensen. “Previous studies have shown that children perform differently on IQ tests, or they have different psychopathology, but that could also be related to demographics, so it’s hard to parse that out until you have something like a biomarker. This gives us a place to start future research to try to learn exactly when the change is occurring in the brain. 

Always consult with a doctor

When it comes to drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages during pregnancy, the researchers recommend that women always consult their doctors. However, they also encourage women to think in terms of moderation so they can get the best health results for themselves and their children. 

“Current clinical guidelines already suggest limiting caffeine intake during pregnancy -- no more than two normal cups of coffee a day,” Dr. Christensen said. “In the long term, we hope to develop better guidance for mothers, but in the meantime, they should ask their doctor as concerns arise.” 

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