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
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.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities
1600 Clifton Road, MS E-87
Atlanta, GA 30333
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.
March of Dimes
1275 Mamaroneck Avenue
White Plains, NY 10605
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.
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Bertrand J, et al. (2005). Guidelines for identifying
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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.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.