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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 baby. Everything a mother drinks also goes to the baby. Alcohol is broken down more slowly in the baby's developing body than it is in an adult's body. 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 baby. No amount of alcohol is safe. So pregnant women shouldn't drink alcohol. An infant born to a mother who drinks alcohol during pregnancy can end 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 may include fetal death. Babies 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 uterus. They may have trouble with math, 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 FASD may have issues such as:

  • 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, such as 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 FASD may include:

  • Psychiatric problems

  • Criminal behavior

  • Unemployment

  • Incomplete education

There is no cure for FASD. 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: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Heather Trevino
Online Medical Reviewer: Irina Burd MD PhD
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2020
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