Using data from the longitudinal Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, the aims of the current study were to examine associations between postnatal maternal heavy alcohol use and toddler behavior problems, taking both observed and unobserved confounding factors into account by employing fixed effects regression models. Postnatal maternal heavy alcohol use (defined as drinking alcohol 4 or more times a week, or drinking 7 units or more per alcohol use episode) and toddler internalizing and externalizing behavior problems were assessed when the toddlers were aged 18 and 36 months. Maternal psychopathology, civil status and negative life events last year were included as time-variant covariates. Maternal heavy alcohol use was associated with toddler internalizing and externalizing behavior problems (p < 0.001) in the population when examined with generalized estimating equation models. The associations disappeared when observed and unobserved sources of confounding were taken into account in the fixed effects models [(p = 0.909 for externalizing behaviors (b = 0.002, SE = 0.021), p = 0.928 for internalizing behaviors (b = 0.002, SE = 0.023)], with an even further reduction of the estimates with the inclusion of time-variant confounders. No causal effect was found between postnatal maternal heavy alcohol use and toddler behavior problems. Increased levels of behavior problems among toddlers of heavy drinking mothers should therefore be attributed to other adverse characteristics associated with these mothers, toddlers and families. This should be taken into account when interventions aimed at at-risk families identified by maternal heavy alcohol use are planned and conducted.
Keywords: Behavior problems; Fixed effects models; Heavy alcohol use; Repeated measures.