Don’t drink pregnant: fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

pregnant woman drinking alcoholIt’s no secret that alcohol abuse is dangerous for the user. What many people don’t realize is how dangerous it is for unborn children when the mother drinks during pregnancy.

In 1973, a pattern of health problems and behavior issues were shown to be directly related to prenatal (before birth) alcohol exposure. The disorder was given the term “fetal alcohol syndrome,” or FAS. Since then, several related disorders have come to light. These disorders, including FAS, are considered types of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). It’s estimated that 1% of all babies in the U.S. are born with an FASD. And yet, these disorders are completely avoidable.

What Causes Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders?

FASDs occur in a child when his or her mother consumes alcohol during pregnancy or breastfeeding. When a mother drinks, the alcohol travels through the umbilical cord and enters the fetus’s system. While the mother’s body will clear the alcohol from her system over time, it stays in the fetus’ body longer.

When pregnant, abstinence from alcohol is the only way to protect your child. This is because:

There is no safe amount

The risk of an FASD goes up if the mother struggles with binge drinking or heavy drinking, but even small amounts can cause lasting damage.

There is no safe type

A standard drink of any kind of alcohol – whether wine, beer, or whiskey – contains the same about of pure alcohol. Even “alcohol free” beers and wines might have small amounts of alcohol, so it’s important to always double-check the label.

There is no safe time

The baby’s brain develops throughout the pregnancy. Alcohol inhibits that process, causing developmental delays and serious health issues. There is no safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy. In fact, it’s important to watch your drinking habits even if you’re not pregnant yet. “Alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant,” says CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat. And according to SAMHSA, approximately 18% of pregnant women drink alcohol during early pregnancy.

Even after birth, alcohol can be transmitted to the baby through breastfeeding. Back in the day, women might be told to have a beer to keep a healthy flow of breast milk. This is entirely a myth. The brain continues to develop after birth, and any alcohol in the breast milk can harm the baby.

Signs & Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

FASDs regularly go undiagnosed, often seeming like just a strong will or belligerence. But as the individual grows, they’re likely to struggle with the basic skills of adulthood, suffering from health problems, legal issues, and an inability to live on their own.

Because the disorders are on a spectrum, the baby or individual may show only a few of these symptoms and still be diagnosed with a disorder. FASDs tend to manifest themselves in four ways:

Behavior Issues

The individual make struggle to control their emotions and impulses. In school, a child might have conduct problems like lying, stealing, and opposing the teacher. As the individual grows, he or she might also suffer from other mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or substance abuse.

Abnormal Cognitive Functioning

An individual with an FASD will often have trouble learning and remembering. They might struggle to understand and follow directions. The individual might struggle with abstract ideas like cause and effect. This becomes especially apparent when a child is learning math skills. In fact, teachers and others who are close to the child’s education are often the first to notice something is wrong.

Poor Social Skills

A student with an FASD may have few friends at school due to their low ability to respond to social cues, reciprocate friendships, and consider the consequences of their actions. They might even withdraw from social circles and go through times of excessive anxiety and unhappiness. As they get older, they may struggle with daily life skills such as bathing, minding personal safety, and preparing food.

Heart, Bone, or Kidney Problems

Prenatal alcohol exposure can cause severe damage to the way the child’s body operates. It’s not uncommon for a child with an FASD to go through several hospital visits for the heart, bones, or kidneys before an underlying problem is suspected.

FASDs are permanent and will affect the child throughout his or her whole life. However, an early diagnosis can give the child the resources they need to grow and thrive, avoiding common secondary problems like chemical dependency and legal issues.


According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are currently four recognized disorders:

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Diagnosis of FAS first requires evidence of prenatal alcohol exposure. A baby with FAS will show facial abnormalities such as a narrow eye opening, thin upper lip, and a smooth area between the lip and nose (instead of the standard ridge). At birth and as they grow, they might be small for their age. They will also struggle with abnormalities in their central nervous system.

Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)

A child with pFAS will show some of the characteristics of FAS, but not all of them. The diagnosis also requires evidence of the mother drinking during pregnancy.

Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)

An ARND diagnosis requires both evidence of prenatal alcohol exposure and abnormalities in the central nervous system. The individual will express cognitive and behavior problems that don’t match up with their stage of development. Unlike FAS, the child might not have the facial abnormalities and slowed growth.

Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)

This disorder is recognized by medical problems with the heart, bones, or kidneys. The individual might also have trouble seeing and hearing. ARBD is usually diagnosed alongside other FASDs.

During an evaluation, a doctor will usually conduct a complete physical exam, facial evaluation, and IQ test. Additional evaluations will check for memory problems and developmental delay, problems following multiple steps in a row, poor motor skills, attention deficits, and behavior problems.

Only trained professionals can make a diagnosis. A qualified pediatrician may also be able to refer you to early intervention and education agencies that can provide services outlined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Preventing FASDs

FASDs are permanent. If you’re struggling with alcohol addiction and might become pregnant in the near future, the time to get help is now. The only cause of FASD is exposure to alcohol through the mother’s body. And that means it’s completely preventable. Learn about the alcohol detox process and how an alcohol treatment program can help you create a new life of freedom for you and your child.


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“Millions of Pregnant Women Put Their Babies at Risk With Alcohol: CDC.” MedlinePlus. National Institutes of Health, 2 Feb 2016. Web. 16 Feb 2016. <>.

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