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:
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:
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 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.
The child’s father as well as friends and family members all can help the pregnant woman avoid alcohol and seek help if needed.
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.
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 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.
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|Alcohol Problems: How to Stop Drinking|
|Growth and Development: Helping Your Child Build Self-Esteem|
Learning about alcohol effects on a fetus:
Living with a child who has FASD:
Taking steps to prevent FASD:
|Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse|
|75 Albert Street|
|Ottawa, ON K1P 5E7|
The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) is an independent national organization working to reduce health, social, and economic harm associated with substance abuse and addictions. The centre promotes informed debate on substance abuse issues and supports organizations seeking to prevent or treat substance abuse.
|Canadian Paediatric Society|
|2305 Saint Laurent Boulevard|
|Ottawa, ON K1G 4J8|
The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) promotes quality health care for Canadian children and establishes guidelines for paediatric care. The organization offers educational materials on a variety of topics, including information on immunizations, pregnancy, safety issues, and teen health.
|Learning Disabilities Association of Canada|
The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) is the national voice for persons with learning disabilities and those who support them. LDAC accomplishes these goals through public awareness about learning disabilities, advocacy, research, health, and education.
|Phone:||1-877-439-2744 Motherisk Helpline |
|Phone:||1-877-327-4636 Alcohol and Substance Use Helpline |
|Phone:||1-800-436-8477 Nausea and Vomiting of Pregnancy Helpline|
|Phone:||1-888-246-5840 HIV and HIV Treatment in Pregnancy |
Motherisk is dedicated to research and education about drug, chemical, and disease risks during pregnancy. Based in the University of Toronto, this program provides evidence-based one-on-one counselling to women who have questions about how substances, radiation, and disease affect a fetus or infant.
|Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)|
|130 Colonnade Road|
|Ottawa, ON K1A 0K9|
|Phone:||Telephone numbers for PHAC vary by region. For your regional number, go to the listing on the PHAC website at www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/contac-eng.php.|
The Public Health Agency of Canada (formerly the Population and Public Health Branch of Health Canada) is primarily responsible for policies, programs, and systems relating to disease prevention, health promotion, disease surveillance, community action, and disease control.
- Canadian Paediatric Society (1997; reaffirmed March 2004). Prevention of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol effects (FAE) in Canada: A joint statement with 17 other co-signatories. Paediatrics and Child Health, 2(2): 143–145. Available online: http://www.cps.ca/english/statements/FN/cps96-01.htm.
- Public Health Agency of Canada (2008). Alcohol and Pregnancy. Available online: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/hp-gs/know-savoir/alc-eng.php.
Other Works Consulted
- 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.
- 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.
- Cunningham FG, et al., eds. (2010). Alcohol section of Teratology and medications that affect the fetus. In Williams Obstetrics, 23rd ed., p. 317. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- First Nations and Inuit Health Committee, Canadian Paediatric Society (2002, reaffirmed 2010). Fetal alcohol syndrome. Paediatrics and Child Health, 7(3): 161–174. Also available online: http://www.cps.ca/english/statements/II/ii02-01.htm.
- Goldson E, Reynolds A (2011). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders section of Child development and behavior. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 20th ed., pp. 102–103. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- National Task Force on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects (2002). Defining the national agenda for fetal alcohol syndrome and other prenatal alcohol-related effects. MMWR, 51(RR-14): 9–12.
- Stoll BJ (2007). Fetal alcohol syndrome section of Metabolic disturbances. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed., pp. 780–782. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2005). U.S. Surgeon General releases advisory on alcohol use in pregnancy. Available online:
- 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:
|Primary Medical Reviewer||John Pope, MD - Pediatrics|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Ernest L. Abel, PhD - Reproductive Toxicology|
|Last Revised||April 20, 2011|
Last Revised: April 20, 2011
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