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Alcohol and Pregnancy

The risks involved with alcohol use during pregnancy

Alcohol consumption by the mother is a leading cause of birth defects in the fetus that can be prevented. Everything a mother drinks also goes to the fetus. Alcohol is broken down more slowly in the immature body of the fetus than in the body of an adult. This can cause the alcohol levels to remain high and stay in the baby's body longer. In addition, the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth increases with alcohol consumption.

Even light or moderate drinking can affect the developing fetus. Because no amount of alcohol is safe, pregnant women should avoid alcohol during pregnancy. An infant born to a mother who drinks alcohol during pregnancy can have problems that are included in a group of disorders called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). FASDs include the following:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). These are the most severe problems that can happen when a woman drinks during pregnancy. These include fetal death. Infants born with FAS have abnormal facial features and growth and central nervous system problems, including intellectual disability.

  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND). Children with ARND may not have full FAS but have learning and behavioral problems due to prenatal exposure to alcohol. These problems may include mathematical difficulties, impaired memory or attention, impulse control and/or judgment problems, and poor school performance.

  • Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD). Birth defects related to prenatal alcohol exposure can include abnormalities in the heart, kidneys, bones, and/or hearing

According to the CDC, the following characteristics or behaviors may happen in children with FASDs:

  • Small for gestational age at birth or small stature compared with their peers

  • Facial abnormalities, like small eyes and thin mouth

  • Poor physical coordination

  • Hyperactive behaviors

  • Learning disabilities

  • Developmental disabilities, like speech and language delays

  • Cognitive delays or low IQ

  • Problems with daily living

  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills

  • Sleep and sucking problems in infancy

Long-term problems in children with FASDs may include psychiatric problems, criminal behavior, unemployment, and incomplete education.

There is no cure for FASDs, but children who are diagnosed early and receive appropriate physical and educational interventions are more likely to have better outcomes than those who are not. This is especially true for those in a stable and nurturing home.

Online Medical Reviewer: Burd, Irina, MD, PhD
Online Medical Reviewer: Kanipe, Jennifer, RN, BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 8/16/2015
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