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Alcohol Effects on a Fetus - Topic Overview

What effect does alcohol have on a fetus?

A woman 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 years.
  • Growth problems. Children who were exposed to alcohol before they were born may be smaller than other children of the same age.
  • 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 born early.

How much alcohol is safe?

Although the risk is higher with heavy alcohol use, any amount of alcohol may affect your developing baby. Heavy drinking (5 or more drinks on at least one occasion) during pregnancy can severely affect a 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 problems.
  • 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 are for your child.

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 child grows.

If you think you might have a drinking problem, talk with your doctor, counselor, or other support person. Doing this can help you to see and address how alcohol may affect many parts of your life, including your pregnancy.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 20, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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