Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

HealthLinkBC File Number: 
Last Updated: 
September 2015

What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), is a term used to describe a range of problems affecting babies whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy.

FASD is the leading known cause of developmental disability in children. It can include lifelong physical, learning and behavioural disabilities. Children with FASD have problems with hearing, speech and vision, learning, memory and coordination.

How much alcohol causes FASD?

There is no safe amount, or safe time to drink alcohol during pregnancy. It is not known how much alcohol it takes to cause harm. Your baby’s brain and nervous system develop throughout your pregnancy.

All types of alcohol, including beer, wine, hard liquor, coolers and ciders, can harm your baby. Binge drinking, that is drinking more than 3 standard drinks at any one time, and drinking throughout your pregnancy, are very harmful to your baby.

According to Canadian Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking guidelines, a standard drink means:

Beer, cider or cooler
5% alcohol
one 12 oz. bottle
(341 ml)
12% alcohol
one 5 oz. glass
(142 ml)
Hard liquor (vodka, rye, gin, rum, etc.)
40% alcohol
one 1.5 oz shot
(43 ml) straight or in a mixed drink

The potential to harm a developing baby is also influenced by the following factors:

  • the mother’s overall health and well-being;
  • alcohol drinking patterns such as binge drinking and heavy drinking;
  • if illegal or street drugs, or medication are being used at the same time; and
  • genetics and many other factors.

For more information on pregnancy and alcohol use, see HealthLinkBC File #38d Pregnancy and Alcohol Use.

Does drinking during breastfeeding cause FASD?

No, drinking alcohol while breastfeeding does not cause FASD. However, it is best not to drink any alcohol when you are breastfeeding as the alcohol passes easily into breast milk. This can affect your baby's sleep-wake pattern, your milk letdown, the amount of milk your baby takes at feeding time and your baby’s behaviour.

If you want to have an occasional drink, it does not mean you need to stop breastfeeding. Breastfeeding provides many positive benefits for both mother and baby. If you choose to drink alcohol while breastfeeding, it is important that you plan around it.

If you are going to have a drink, it is recommended that you feed your baby, and store milk, before you start drinking. You will need to wait several hours after drinking to ensure that the alcohol is gone from your body and breast milk. How soon you can start breastfeeding again will depend on how many drinks you have had and how much you weigh.

You can pump or express as needed to relieve any discomfort from engorgement. For more information for nursing mothers to understand how much time is needed after drinking alcohol, visit Motherisk at www.motherisk.org/women/updatesDetail.jsp?content_id=347#table1.

When can FASD and other effects of alcohol be diagnosed?

FASD and related conditions are often diagnosed after a child has behavioral or learning problems.

Recognizing FASD early can give a person with FASD the best chance to reach his or her full potential. Early diagnosis and support in a safe and healthy family situation may help prevent future issues such as difficulty at school, mental health or other health concerns.

Where can families and caregivers go for help?

Community resources in your regional health authority, such as child development programs, may help support families and children. Examples of available services include:

  • Key Workers—helps families understand FASD by providing information and connecting them to support services.
  • Parent Support—includes mentoring, offering support groups, and FASD training for parents and grandparents.

Some communities have additional support services and groups for mothers and their children with FASD.

For more information on these and other local programs and services in your area, visit the Ministry of Children and Family Development at www.mcf.gov.bc.ca/fasd/assessment.htm. For contact information to your local public health unit and to find services that are available in your area visit the FIND Services and Resources Directory at www.healthlinkbc.ca/find/. When you call the public health unit ask for a public health nurse.

For More Information

For information on the use of alcohol and other drugs during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, call the Motherisk Alcohol and Substance Use Helpline toll-free at 1-877-327-4636 or visit www.motherisk.org.

HealthyFamilies BC
HealthyFamilies BC provides pregnant and expecting parents information about FASD and the risks and health effects of drinking alcohol in pregnancy. www.healthyfamiliesbc.ca/parenting.

Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse
For more information on Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, visit the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse at www.ccsa.ca/Eng/topics/alcohol/drinking-guidelines/Pages/default.aspx.

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. 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.

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