What effect does alcohol have on a fetus?
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:
- 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 age.
- Learning and behavior problems.
- Birth defects.
- Problems bonding or feeding as a newborn.
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 problems.
- 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 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.
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.
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.
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 substance use disorder, 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.
Other Works Consulted
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- 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.
- 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, et al. (2014). Child development and behavior. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 75–116. 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.
- 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.
Current as of: August 21, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: John Pope MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Louis Pellegrino MD - Developmental Pediatrics