What effect does alcohol have on a fetus?
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:
- Distinctive facial features. A child may have a small
head, flat face, and narrow eye openings, for instance. This gets more
obvious by age 2 or 3 years.
- Growth problems. Children who were exposed
to alcohol before they were born may be smaller than other children of the same
- Learning and behavior problems.
- Birth defects.
- Problems bonding or feeding as a newborn.
Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy can also lead to
miscarriage, stillbirth, or a baby being
How much alcohol is safe?
Although the risk is
higher with heavy alcohol use, any amount of alcohol may affect your developing
baby. Heavy drinking (5 or more drinks on at least
one occasion) during pregnancy can severely affect a 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:
- How much, how often, and at what stage of
pregnancy the mother drinks alcohol. The worst effects often are related to
heavy alcohol use.
Whether the mother used other drugs, smoked, or had poor health for any reason
while she was pregnant. In these cases, the child is more likely to have
- Traits passed down through families. Some babies are more
likely to be harmed by alcohol than others. It's not clear why, but there may
be a genetic link.
What can you do if you're pregnant and have had alcohol?
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 are for your
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
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
When are alcohol effects on a fetus diagnosed?
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.
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.
What is the treatment for a child born with alcohol effects?
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
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.
Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.
Interactive tools are designed to help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more.
- Alcohol Problems: How to Stop Drinking
- Growth and Development: Helping Your Child Build Self-Esteem
- Interactive Tool: Do You Have a Drinking Problem?
Learning about alcohol effects on a fetus:
What is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)?
What types of behavior and learning problems can occur?
What are developmental delays?
What tests can check for birth defects?
Can problems from FASD show up after infancy?
What should I know about alcohol or drug use during pregnancy?
Living with a child who has FASD:
What are some ways to help my baby with FASD?
How can I care for my toddler and school-age child?
Can school programs help my child?
How can I help my child build self-esteem?
How can vocational training help my teen?
What are some self-care tips I should know?
Taking steps to prevent FASD:
Do I have a drinking problem?
How can I stop drinking?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) (U.S.)
March of Dimes (U.S.)
Alcohol Abuse and Dependence
Alcohol and Drug Problems
Alcohol or Drug Use During Pregnancy
Grief and Grieving
Support Groups and Social Support
Other Works Consulted
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.
Bertrand 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
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 Health Care for Underserved Women, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2011). At-risk drinking and
alcohol dependence: Obstetric and gynecologic implications. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 496.
Obstetrics and Gynecology, 118(2, Part 1): 383–388.
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 (2012). Child development and behavior. In WW Hay et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 21st ed., pp. 73–112. New York: McGraw-Hill.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2005). U.S. Surgeon General releases advisory on alcohol use in pregnancy. Available online: http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/pressreleases/sg02222005.html.
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: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/documents/FAS_guidelines_accessible.pdf.
Wallen LD, Gleason CA (2010). Perinatal substance abuse. In CA Gleason, SU Devaskar, eds., Avery's Diseases of the Newborn, 9th ed., pp. 111–128. Philadelphia: Saunders.