Facts About Fetal Alcohol

Pregnant woman holding a glass of wine at home
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It’s a message that’s often communicated yet occasionally ignored: Drinking alcohol while pregnant can harm the baby and impact the child’s future. 

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) occur when a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy. But how much alcohol is too much? One drink? Two?

“In places such as Denmark and Sweden, the general advice is a glass of wine a day,” says Annelise Spees, M.D., a board certified behavioral pediatrician and member of Focus on the Family’s Physician Resource Council (PRC). “But we just don’t have enough information about how much alcohol is necessary to cause damage.”

General guidelines from the National Institute of Health (NIH) urge women who are trying to get pregnant – or who are pregnant – to avoid any alcohol consumption.

FASDs impact each pregnancy differently, and the effects can be mild to severe. Especially early on in a pregnancy, when cells are rapidly multiplying and dividing as the baby is knit together, alcohol can travel through the mother’s blood and into the baby through the umbilical cord.

According to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, because the baby’s liver is underdeveloped, it cannot process alcohol, which can be detrimental to physical, behavioral or intellectual development.

Babies born with FASD sometimes have distinctive facial features – eyes set wider apart, a thin upper lip and a flattened space between the nose and lips. Fetal alcohol can impact organs such as the heart and kidneys.

“They may not have distinctive eye or mouth features, but can still have cognitive and behavioral issues,” says Dr. Spees.

She notes that one significant behavioral disorder involves the inability to grasp the consequences of actions, to learn from them, and to change behavior. “Some parents say to me, ‘No matter how many times I tell him, he keeps on doing it.’ ”

Behavioral and intellectual disabilities can emerge early on or not until later in childhood. A list of FASD issues published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes difficulty in learning math and reading, hyperactivity, short attention span, low IQ, speech and language delays, sensory issues, and poor reasoning and judgment.

The CDC also notes that FASDs affect two to five in the United States and Western countries. However, because of the shame surrounding FASDs, a child’s symptoms are sometimes attributed to autism or another condition.

Again, how much alcohol can a woman drink during pregnancy? Trouble is, you’ll often find conflicting answers. Many experts in the field, including governmental agencies such as the CDC and the NIH, admit that they just don’t know.

“If you know you’re pregnant,” says Dr. Spees, “it’s best not to drink at all.”