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Alcohol and Pregnancy

The risks involved with alcohol use during pregnancy

Drinking alcohol while pregnant is a leading cause of birth defects in a fetus. 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. The risk of miscarriage and stillbirth also goes up if the mother drinks alcohol.

Even light or moderate drinking can affect the developing fetus. No amount of alcohol is safe. So pregnant women should not drink alcohol. An infant born to a mother who drinks alcohol during pregnancy can hend up with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This group of disorders includes:

  • 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. They may also have growth and central nervous system problems, such as learning problems.

  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND). Children with ARND may not have full FAS. But they have learning and behavioral problems because they were exposed to alcohol in the womb. They may have trouble with mathematics, problems with memory or attention, problems with impulse control or judgment, and poor school performance.

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

According to the CDC, children with FASDs may have:

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

  • Facial abnormalities such as small eyes and thin mouth

  • Poor physical coordination

  • Hyperactive behaviors

  • Learning problems

  • 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

  • Vision or hearing problems

  • Problems with the heart, kidney, or bones

Long-term problems in children with FASDs may include:

  • Psychiatric problems

  • Criminal behavior

  • Unemployment

  • Incomplete education

There is no cure for FASDs. But children who are diagnosed early and get the right care are more likely to have better outcomes than those who don't. This is especially true for those in a stable and nurturing home.

Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Sacks, Daniel, MD, FACOG
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2018
© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.