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A woman who drinks alcohol while she is pregnant may harm her developing baby (fetus). Alcohol can pass from the mother’s blood into the baby’s blood. It can damage and affect the growth of the baby’s cells. Brain and spinal cord cells are most likely to have damage.
The term "fetal alcohol spectrum disorder" (FASD) describes the range of alcohol effects on a child. The problems range from mild to severe. Alcohol can cause a child to have physical or mental problems that may last all of his or her life.
The effects of alcohol can include:
Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy can also lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or a baby being born early.
When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, so does her baby. Heavy drinking (5 or more drinks on at least one occasion) during pregnancy can severely affect a developing baby. Studies do not yet show if it is safe for a pregnant woman to drink a small amount of alcohol. People react to alcohol in different ways, so no one can really say for sure how much alcohol (if any) is safe.
Although the risk is higher with heavy alcohol use, any amount of alcohol may affect your developing baby. You can prevent FASD by not drinking at all while you are pregnant. That is what many doctors suggest.
The effects that alcohol has on a developing baby depend on:
Try to talk openly with your doctor if you have had alcohol while you're pregnant. The earlier you tell your doctor, the better the chances for your child.
If your doctor knows to look for FASD-related problems while you're pregnant, he or she can watch your baby’s health both before and after birth. And the doctor will know to do more tests, if needed, as your child grows.
If you think you might have a drinking problem, talk with your doctor, counselor, or other support person. Doing this can help you to see and address how alcohol may affect many parts of your life, including your pregnancy.
The child’s father as well as friends and family members all can help the pregnant woman avoid alcohol and seek help if needed.
Signs of FASD don't always appear at birth. A doctor may be able to spot severe alcohol effects (fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS) in the child at birth. But less severe effects, such as behavior or learning problems, may not be noticed until the child is in school.
Sometimes the doctor can find severe problems before the baby is born. If your doctor knows about your alcohol use, he or she can order a test (ultrasound) to look for signs of FAS in your baby, such as heart defects or growth delays. The cause of problems that are found during the test may not be clear. But the findings alert the doctor to any special care a baby may need after he or she is born.
Caring for a child born with alcohol effects takes patience. Help for your child may include extra support in school, social skills training, job training, and counseling. Community services may be able to help your family handle the costs of and emotions from raising your child.
Finding alcohol effects early, even if they are mild, gives a child the best chance to reach his or her full potential in life. Finding the problem early may help prevent problems in school and mental health problems, such as substance abuse, depression, or anxiety.
There is no treatment that can reverse the impact of alcohol on your baby's health. And there's no treatment that can make the effects less severe.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Learning about alcohol effects on a fetus:
Living with a child who has FASD:
Taking steps to prevent FASD:
NIAAA provides pamphlets, brochures, and referral information about alcohol use problems. Information can be obtained by writing or calling or by printing it from the Web site.
NCBDDD aims to find the cause of and prevent birth defects and developmental disabilities. This agency works to help people of all ages with disabilities live to the fullest. The website has information on many topics, including genetics, autism, ADHD, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, diabetes and pregnancy, blood disorders, and hearing loss.
This Web site, sponsored by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), has information and resources about preventing and treating FASD.
The March of Dimes tries to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and early death. March of Dimes supports research, community services, education, and advocacy to save babies' lives. The organization's website has information on premature birth, birth defects, birth defects testing, pregnancy, and prenatal care.
This nonprofit group seeks to prevent alcohol use during pregnancy. Its website has information for expectant moms. And it has many resources for people who have fetal alcohol effects and their families.
Other Works ConsultedBertrand J, et al. (2005). Guidelines for identifying and referring persons with fetal alcohol syndrome. MMWR, 54(RR–11): 1–15. [Erratum in MMWR, 55(20): 568. Also available online: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5520a13.htm.]Bukstein OG (2009). Adolescent substance abuse. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3818–3834. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.Carlo WA (2011). Fetal alcohol syndrome. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 625–626. Philadelphia: Saunders.Committee on Ethics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2008). At-risk drinking and illicit drug use: Ethical issues in obstetric and gynecologic practice. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 422. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 112(6): 1449–1460.Cunningham FG, et al., eds. (2010). Teratology and medications that affect the fetus. In Williams Obstetrics, 23rd ed., pp. 312–333. New York: McGraw-Hill.Goldson E, Reynolds A (2011). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders section of Child development and behavior. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 20th ed., pp. 102–103. New York: McGraw-Hill.National Task Force on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects (2002). Defining the national agenda for fetal alcohol syndrome and other prenatal alcohol-related effects. MMWR, 51(RR-14): 9–12.U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2005). U.S. Surgeon General releases advisory on alcohol use in pregnancy. Available online:U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Task Force on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effect) (2004). Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Guidelines for Referral and Diagnosis. Washington, DC: United States Department of Health and Human Services. Available online:
Last Revised: March 3, 2011
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: John Pope, MD - Pediatrics & Ernest L. Abel, PhD - Reproductive Toxicology
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