Drinking During Pregnancy – Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Drinking During Pregnancy – Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Drinking during pregnancy can result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which are a group – a spectrum – of conditions that can occur in a child whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. This spectrum ranges from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) to Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAEs) to Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) to Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD) – all described below. Yet, we often hear women telling themselves or we hear friends and family telling women things, like:

My mother drank and smoked throughout her pregnancy.

As long as it’s not hard liquor, it’s OK.

A glass of wine a night is not going to hurt the baby.

For some women and their babies, drinking during pregnancy MAY have worked out. But that should not be a mother’s benchmark for there is no known “safe” amount nor “safe” time to drink during pregnancy. What is known is the numbers of babies affected and the variety of outcomes, ranging from mild to devastating. Consider this:

“In the United States, prenatal exposure to alcohol is the most common cause of birth defects,” according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

“It’s estimated that each year in the United States, 1 in every 750 infants is born with a pattern of physical, developmental, and functional problems referred to as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), while another 40,000 are born with fetal alcohol effects (FAE),” according to KidsHealth.org.

Of course no mother wants her baby to be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. So I am using this post to help all concerned better understand how it happens, how to help your child if s/he has it, what to do if you’re worried about your drinking and what to do if you can’t stop. Not only that, but this same information can be used by a husband or concerned friend, parent or sibling to intervene with a woman who is drinking during pregnancy.


Why alcohol drinking during pregnancy can harm the fetus. Image source: University of Rochester Medical Center, Online Encyclopedia

This image helps “explain” why drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm the fetus. Image source: University of Rochester Medical Center, Online Encyclopedia <http://tiny.cc/ctc94w>

How Alcohol (or Drugs, BTW) Reaches the Fetus During Pregnancy

Because alcohol bypasses the normal digestive system and moves into the small intestine and from there into the bloodstream, it follows that it passes to the fetus from the mother’s blood through the blood vessels in the umbilical cord.

The umbilical cord connects the fetus/baby to the placenta (which implants in the mother’s uterus during pregnancy) – see image. The fetus/baby receives the nutrition and oxygen it needs to develop and thrive through the placenta/umbilical cord and then sends its waste products and carbon dioxide back through the umbilical cord/placenta into the mother’s circulation to be eliminated. Thus, alcohol (or drugs) used by the mother during pregnancy passes through to the fetus/baby in this manner.

Some women are not aware they are pregnant and realize they have had a drinking episode or episodes while pregnant but before they knew. The following excerpt from the “Developmental Timeline of Alcohol-Induced Birth Defects,” appearing on The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, published by Arizona State University, School of Life Sciences, Center for Biology and Society, is provided as a point of reference; it is NOT to be construed as medical advice. For medical advice or concerns about a drinking episode(s), be sure to talk frankly and honestly with your doctor.


In the first two weeks following fertilization, excessive alcohol consumption does not generally have a negative effect on the zygote and emerging blastocyst (pre-embryo) [contributedTo]. Maternal consumption of alcohol during this time can prevent proper implantation of the blastocyst in the uterus, resulting in an increased rate of resorption or early termination of the pregnancy, generally before a woman realizes she is pregnant. The potential for the cells in the blastocyst to become any cell lineage in the body generally confers protection against the negative effects that alcohol has on specific cellular populations.

It is in the third week after fertilization that… continue reading “Developmental Timeline of Alcohol-Induced Birth Defects”

What are Some of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and Their Consequences for the Child

The following examples of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are quoted from SAMHSA’s Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Center for Excellence website:

  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND): People with ARND might have intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior and learning. They might do poorly in school and have difficulties with math, memory, attention, judgment, and poor impulse control.
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD): People with ARBD might have problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones, or with hearing. They might have a mix of these.
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): People with FAS might have abnormal facial features, growth problems, and central nervous system (CNS) problems.

According to NIAAA’s publication, “Drinking and Your Pregnancy,” children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), the most serious of the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, may:

  • Be born small.
  • Have problems eating and sleeping.
  • Have problems seeing and hearing.
  • Have trouble following directions and learning how to do simple things.
  • Have trouble paying attention and learning in school.
  • Need special teachers and schools.
  • Have trouble getting along with others and controlling their behavior.
  • Need medical care all their lives.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the problems for children and adolescents with Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAEs) include:

  • Infants may show slow growth and developmental delay, unusual facial features, irritability, brain and neurological disorders, mental retardation and problems with their attachment to their fathers.
  • Kids and school-age children may have problems with learning, low tolerance for frustration, inadequate social boundaries and difficulty reading.
  • Teenagers can have continuous learning problems, depression, anxiety and inappropriate sexual behavior.

What Can Be Done for a Child with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

There are no cures for FASDs, HOWEVER “…research shows that early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development. Early intervention services help children from birth to 3 years of age (36 months) learn important skills. Services include therapy to help the child talk, walk, and interact with others. Therefore, it is important to talk to your child’s doctor as soon as possible if you think your child has an FASD or other developmental problem,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) Treatments.

For more on this and a whole host of other treatment and care options, please visit the CDC’s “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) Treatments. It is important to understand all of this so you can advocate on your child’s behalf in school (with securing an Individualized Education Program [IEP], for example) and support them as they navigate the various aspects of their lives.

If You Are Drinking While Pregnant…

Do anything and everything you can to stop, and know that it is never too late in the pregnancy to stop. Just because you abused alcohol for a time does not necessarily mean stopping won’t make a HUGE difference to your baby’s health and well-being.

NIAAA has a great website, “Rethinking Drinking” that can help, as can your doctor. If you don’t think you can stop, you may have the disease of alcoholism, for which these resources can help:


For More Information on FASDs and FAEs:


Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at BreakingTheCycles.com
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of BreakingTheCycles.com. She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

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