Q: I've heard that kids in Europe are sometimes served a watered-down glass of wine with dinner. What are the risks of children consuming small amounts of alcohol?—Nancy, Durango, Colo.
A: It’s true that some European countries, compared to the United States, have more permissive attitudes toward young people and alcohol. In the past, French schoolchildren drank wine with lunch, and more recently, third graders took a field trip to a château and the Cité du Vin. Drinking ages in Europe, as in many countries the world over, are lower than the current drinking age in the United States.
Does Europe’s relatively laissez-faire stance around alcohol present serious risks? According to Dr. Shan Yin, a pediatrician and the medical director of the Drug and Poison Information Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, “safety can be roughly divided into short-term and long-term effects.” In the short term, he says, “it is very unlikely that a child would suffer the most common acute effect of alcohol—intoxication or “drunkenness”—from a sip or drink of watered-down alcohol.” He points out that alcohol’s physical effects on children depend on many factors, including “the concentration of the alcohol, the age and weight of the child, the amount the child drank and food in the stomach.”
Dr. Yin cautions that “there is virtually no research on neurobiological development in young children following alcohol exposure.” However, “small, infrequent exposures as a child are probably unlikely to result in appreciable neurobiological effects.”
In the long term, parents and caregivers should be aware that “a child’s expectancies and cognitions about alcohol might be affected by drinking watered-down alcohol. Research suggests that allowing young children even sips of alcohol is associated with increased odds of more risky behaviors—such as getting drunk and drinking heavily by 9th grade.” Studies have shown that “children introduced to alcohol at younger ages were more likely to report frequent or heavy drinking by mid-adolescence.”
On the other hand, “children who sip alcohol with parental permission were shown to have lower risk profiles when compared with children who sip alcohol obtained from someone other than a parent—that is, outside the home.” Therefore, Dr. Yin advises, “the best available evidence suggests alcohol exposure at home with parents is safer than outside the home with peers—but avoiding even sips of alcohol is the safest behavior.” If you’re considering letting kids try small amounts of alcohol, talk to a pediatrician to learn more about the risks.—Kenny Martin