Alcohol Effects on a Fetus - Topic Overview
What effect does alcohol have on a fetus?
who drinks alcohol while she is pregnant may harm her developing baby (fetus).
Alcohol can pass from the mother’s blood into the baby’s blood. It can damage
and affect the growth of the baby’s cells. Brain and spinal cord cells are most
likely to have damage.
The term "fetal alcohol spectrum disorder"
(FASD) describes the range of alcohol effects on a child. The problems range
from mild to severe. Alcohol can cause a child to have physical or mental
problems that may last all of his or her life.
The effects of
alcohol can include:
- Distinctive facial features. A child may have a small
head, flat face, and narrow eye openings, for instance. This gets more
obvious by age 2 or 3.
- Growth problems. Children who were exposed
to alcohol before they were born may be smaller than other children of the same
- Learning and behavior problems.
- Birth defects.
- Problems bonding or feeding as a newborn.
Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy can also lead to
miscarriage, stillbirth, or a baby being
How much alcohol is safe?
When a pregnant woman
drinks alcohol, so does her baby. Heavy drinking (5 or more drinks on at least
one occasion) during pregnancy can severely affect a developing baby. Studies
do not yet show if it is safe for a pregnant woman to drink a small amount of
alcohol. People react to alcohol in different ways, so no one can really say
for sure how much alcohol (if any) is safe.
Although the risk is
higher with heavy alcohol use, any amount of alcohol may affect your developing
baby. You can prevent FASD by not drinking at all while you are pregnant. That is what many doctors suggest.
The effects that alcohol has on a
developing baby depend on:
- How much, how often, and at what stage of
pregnancy the mother drinks alcohol. The worst effects often are related to
heavy alcohol use.
Whether the mother used other drugs, smoked, or had poor health for any reason
while she was pregnant. In these cases, the child is more likely to have
- Traits passed down through families. Some babies are more
likely to be harmed by alcohol than others. It’s not clear why, but there may
be a genetic link.
What can you do if you're pregnant and have had alcohol?
Try to talk openly with your doctor if you have had alcohol while you're
pregnant. The earlier you tell your doctor, the better the chances for your
If your doctor knows to look for FASD-related problems
while you're pregnant, he or she can watch your baby’s health both before and
after birth. And the doctor will know to do more tests, if needed, as your