Skip to Content

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.

When are alcohol effects on a fetus diagnosed?

Signs of FASD don't always appear at birth. A doctor may be able to spot severe alcohol effects (fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS) in the child at birth. But less severe effects, such as behavior or learning problems, may not be noticed until the child is in school.

Sometimes the doctor can find severe problems before the baby is born. If your doctor knows about your alcohol use, he or she can order a test (ultrasound) to look for signs of FAS in your baby, such as heart defects or growth delays. The cause of problems that are found during the test may not be clear. But the findings alert the doctor to any special care a baby may need after he or she is born.

What is the treatment for a child born with alcohol effects?

Caring for a child born with alcohol effects takes patience. Help for your child may include extra support in school, social skills training, job training, and counseling. Community services may be able to help your family handle the costs of and emotions from raising your child.

Finding alcohol effects early, even if they are mild, gives a child the best chance to reach his or her full potential in life. Finding the problem early may help prevent problems in school and mental health problems, such as substance abuse, depression, or anxiety.

There is no treatment that can reverse the impact of alcohol on your baby's health. And there's no treatment that can make the effects less severe.

Health Tools Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Actionsets help people take an active role in managing a health condition. Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.
  Alcohol Problems: How to Stop Drinking
  Growth and Development: Helping Your Child Build Self-Esteem
Interactive tools help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more. Interactive tools are designed to help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more.
  Interactive Tool: Do You Have a Drinking Problem?

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD)
1600 Clifton Road, MS E-87
Atlanta, GA  30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
TDD: 1-888-232-6348
Email: cdcinfo@cdc.gov
Web Address: www.cdc.gov/ncbddd
 

NCBDDD aims to find the cause of and prevent birth defects and developmental disabilities. This agency works to help people of all ages with disabilities live to the fullest. The website has information on many topics, including genetics, autism, ADHD, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, diabetes and pregnancy, blood disorders, and hearing loss.


March of Dimes
1275 Mamaroneck Avenue
White Plains, NY  10605
Phone: (914) 997-4488
Web Address: www.marchofdimes.com
 

The March of Dimes tries to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and early death. March of Dimes supports research, community services, education, and advocacy to save babies' lives. The organization's website has information on premature birth, birth defects, birth defects testing, pregnancy, and prenatal care.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • Committee on Ethics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2008). At-risk drinking and illicit drug use: Ethical issues in obstetric and gynecologic practice. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 422. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 112(6): 1449–1460.
  • Bertrand J, et al. (2005). Guidelines for identifying and referring persons with fetal alcohol syndrome. MMWR, 54(RR–11): 1–15. [Erratum in MMWR, 55(20): 568. Also available online: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5520a13.htm.]
  • Bukstein OG (2009). Adolescent substance abuse. In BJ Sadock et al., eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3818–3834. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Carlo WA (2011). Fetal alcohol syndrome. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 625–626. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2011). At-risk drinking and alcohol dependence: Obstetric and gynecologic implications. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 496. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 118(2, Part 1): 383–388.
  • Cunningham FG, et al., eds. (2010). Teratology and medications that affect the fetus. In Williams Obstetrics, 23rd ed., pp. 312–333. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Goldson E, Reynolds A (2012). Child development and behavior. In WW Hay et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 21st ed., pp. 73–112. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2005). U.S. Surgeon General releases advisory on alcohol use in pregnancy. Available online: http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/pressreleases/sg02222005.html.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Task Force on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effect) (2004). Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Guidelines for Referral and Diagnosis. Washington, DC: United States Department of Health and Human Services. Available online: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/documents/FAS_guidelines_accessible.pdf.
  • Wallen LD, Gleason CA (2010). Perinatal substance abuse. In CA Gleason, SU Devaskar, eds., Avery's Diseases of the Newborn, 9th ed., pp. 111–128. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Ernest L. Abel, PhD - Reproductive Toxicology
Last Revised February 20, 2013

Last Revised: February 20, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2014 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Classes & Events

  • Oct
    27
    Monday
    6:00 PM - 8:30 PM
    A unique method of relaxed, natural childbirth education, enhanced by self-hypnosis techniques.
  • Oct
    28
    Tuesday
    6:00 PM - 7:00 PM
    Join our lactation consultant in an informal discussion to answer your questions and concerns regarding breastfeeding your newborn.
  • Oct
    29
    Wednesday
    10:00 AM - 11:30 AM
    Providing a supportive environment for postpartum parents and their babies to learn and connect with others.