Pregnant women may want to skip all soft drinks while they’re expecting if they want their child’s learning and memory skills to be sharper, new research suggests.
The study found that when moms-to-be had more sugar, especially from sugar-sweetened sodas, their children had poorer nonverbal problem-solving abilities and verbal memory. These children also had poorer global intelligence scores associated with verbal knowledge and non-verbal skills.
Diet soda wasn’t much better. Drinking it during pregnancy was linked to poorer fine motor, visual, spatial and visual motor abilities in early childhood (around age 3). By mid-childhood (age 7), kids whose moms drank diet sodas while pregnant had poorer verbal abilities, the study findings reported.
The researchers also found that when kids themselves consumed more sugar, that excess sugar consumption was tied to memory and learning difficulties. What helped, however, was eating whole fruit. Kids who regularly consumed whole fruits had better visual motor abilities in early childhood and better verbal intelligence in later childhood.
“Everyone wants what’s best for their kids, and one way to keep your child from getting off on a poorer footing is to watch and limit added sugar intake, especially sugar-sweetened beverages like fruit drinks, sports drinks and sodas,” said study author Dr. Juliana Cohen. She is an assistant professor at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
“The child’s diet is really important, too,” she added. “Give them whole fruits over juice or soda.”
Cohen said the differences seen in the study are “meaningful, especially at a population level.”
So, what is it about sugar-laden sodas that could affect a child’s thinking and memory?
Cohen said there are a number of theories about that, most of them from animal studies. One suggestion is that sugar may impair parts of the brain.
It’s also not entirely clear how diet soda might affect a child’s thinking and memory, according to Cohen. But, again, animal research provides clues. One study pointed to changes in neurotransmitters, chemicals that help messages get from one nerve cell to the next. It’s also possible that diet soda in pregnancy may have an impact on the developing brain, she said.
However, these are just theories, and it’s important to note that this study only found an association between soda consumption and thinking deficits in children, and could not prove a cause-and-effect link.
Dr. Mitchell Kramer, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Huntington Hospital in New York, said that women shouldn’t panic.
“This study shows an association. It’s not definitive that kids will have any issues,” Kramer explained, and most women likely have sodas only occasionally. “It’s the chronic intake that’s concerning,” he said.
Kramer advises his patients to limit their junk food and added sugar intake. “American diets are filled with sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages. That they could have an impact on memory and learning is alarming,” he said.
The study included more than 1,200 expectant moms. The women in the study consumed about 120 to 200 calories a day in sugar, according to Cohen. The American Heart Association recommends less than 100 calories a day (25 grams) from sugar for women and children, the study authors noted.
New nutrition labels are supposed to carry information about added sugars, but those labels have been delayed again, Cohen said. “It’s important not to delay information that will highlight added sugars,” she added.
The new study was published online recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Learn more about healthy eating during pregnancy from the March of Dimes.