Fetal alcohol syndrome is growth, mental, and physical problems that may occur in a baby when a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy.
Alcohol in pregnancy; Alcohol-related birth defects; Fetal alcohol effects; FAS
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Using or abusing alcohol during pregnancy can cause the same risks as using alcohol in general. However, it poses extra risks to the unborn baby. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it easily passes across the placenta to the fetus. Because of this, drinking alcohol can harm the baby’s development.
A pregnant woman who drinks any amount of alcohol is at risk for having a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. No “safe” level of alcohol use during pregnancy has been established. Larger amounts of alcohol appear to increase the problems. Binge drinking is more harmful than drinking small amounts of alcohol.
Timing of alcohol use during pregnancy is also important. Alcohol use appears to be the most harmful during the first 3 months of pregnancy; however, drinking alcohol any time during pregnancy can be harmful.
A baby with fetal alcohol syndrome may have the following symptoms:
- Poor growth while the baby is in the womb and after birth
- Decreased muscle tone and poor coordination
- Delayed development and problems in three or more major areas: thinking, speech, movement, or social skills
- Heart defects such as
ventricular septal defect (VSD)or atrial septal defect (ASD)
- Problems with the face, including:
- Narrow, small eyes with large
- Small head
- Small upper jaw
- Smooth groove in upper lip
- Smooth and thin upper lip
- Narrow, small eyes with large
Signs and tests
A physical exam of the baby may show a
- Blood alcohol level in pregnant women who show signs of being drunk (intoxicated)
- Brain imaging studies (CT or MRI) after the child is born
Women who are pregnant or who are trying to get pregnant should avoid drinking any amount of alcohol. Pregnant women with alcoholism should join an alcohol abuse rehabilitation program and be checked closely by a health care provider throughout pregnancy.
The following organizations may offer assistance:
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency —
- National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service — 1-800-662-4357
The following organizations are good resources for information on alcoholism:
- Alcoholics Anonymous –
- Al-Anon/Alateen –
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism –
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration –
The outcome for infants with fetal alcohol syndrome varies. Almost none of these babies have normal brain development.
Infants and children with fetal alcohol syndrome have many different problems, which can be difficult to manage. Children do best if they are diagnosed early and referred to a team of health care providers who can work on educational and behavioral strategies that fit the child’s needs.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy may result in:
- Premature delivery
Complications seen in the infant may include:
- Abnormal heart structure
- Behavior problems
- Infant death
- Intellectual disability
- Problems in the structure of the head, eyes, nose, or mouth
- Poor growth before birth
- Slow growth and poor coordination after birth
Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you are drinking alcohol regularly or heavily, and are finding it difficult to cut back or stop. Also, call if you are drinking alcohol in any amount while you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
Avoiding alcohol during pregnancy prevents fetal alcohol syndrome. Counseling can help women who have already had a child with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Sexually active women who drink heavily should use birth control and control their drinking behaviors, or stop using alcohol before trying to get pregnant.