Alcohol Effects on a Fetus
British Columbia Specific Information
When you are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, the safest option is to not drink alcohol at all. Drinking alcohol during your pregnancy puts your baby at risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). FASD is the leading known cause of developmental disabilities in children. Taking drugs during pregnancy or while breastfeeding may also harm your baby. This includes prohibited drugs but could also include the misuse of prescribed or over the counter drugs.
For more information about FASD, substance use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, and where to find support, see Alcohol and Other Drug Use During Pregnancy or speak to your health care provider.
Alcohol Effects on a Fetus
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 behaviour problems.
- Birth defects.
- Problems bonding or feeding as a newborn.
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, counsellor, 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 behaviour 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 counselling . 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 use problems , 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 help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about alcohol effects on a fetus:
Living with a child who has FASD:
Taking steps to prevent FASD:
Other Places To Get Help
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.
- Carson G, et al. (2010). Alcohol use and pregnancy consensus clinical guidelines. SOGC Clinical Practice Guidelines No. 245. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, v32(8)(Suppl 3). Also available online: http://www.sogc.org/guidelines/index_e.asp.
- 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.
- First Nations and Inuit Health Committee, Canadian Paediatric Society (2002, reaffirmed 2012). Fetal alcohol syndrome. Paediatrics and Child Health, 7(3): 161–174. Also available online: http://www.cps.ca/en/documents/position/fetal-alcohol-syndrome.
- Goldson E, et al. (2014). Child development and behavior. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 75–116. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Health Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada (2009). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Available online: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/diseases-maladies/fasd-etcaf-eng.php.
- 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.
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Ernest L. Abel, PhD - Reproductive Toxicology
Current as ofAugust 21, 2015
Public Health Alerts
Public health alerts include information about outbreaks, advisories and product recalls. Click on the links below to read the most recent alerts, or visit our Public Health Alerts web page.
Want More Information?
HealthLink BC, your provincial health line, is as close as your phone or the web any time of the day or night, every day of the year.
Call 8-1-1 toll-free in B.C. or for deaf and hearing-impaired, call 7-1-1.
You can speak with a health service representative, who can also connect you with a:
- registered nurse any time, every day of the year;
- registered dietitian from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday;
- pharmacist from 5pm to 9am, every day of the year.
Translation services are available in more than 130 languages.
FIND Services and Resources
If you are looking for health services in your community, you can use our directory to FIND hospitals, clinics, and other resources.
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2015 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Is it an emergency?
If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be life-threatening. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately. If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.