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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome & Drinking While Pregnant

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 11, 2019

Pregnant woman holding stomach in bathroomWhat is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) can include a wide range of physical, developmental, and learning conditions caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. It is the most severe of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). While the exact defects and conditions can vary from one person to the next, they are typically permanent.

In the past, drinking alcohol while pregnant was not always considered problematic. It wasn’t until 1973 that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome was brought to light, and alcohol’s effects on the fetus started to become more well-known.1 Now with more information on substance abuse readily available, most women are cautioned against drinking during pregnancy, but FAS does still occur.

In 2019, a report found that 1 in 9 pregnant people had at least one alcoholic beverage in the last 30 days.2 The commonality and prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome can be harder to determine. Some account suggests that 0.3 out of 1,000 children ages 7 to 9 have fetal alcohol syndrome. Other reports suggest that the prevalence of all fetal alcohol spectrum disorders is as high as 5 out of 100 school children.2

Signs & Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The effects of fetal alcohol syndrome are extensive and can include a wide range of conditions that range from physical to behavioral indicators. These symptoms can be mild or severe and are different from one person with FAS to the next.

Physical signs of FAS are often noticeable early on and permanent.

These physical defects of fetal alcohol syndrome can include:

  • Below average body weight and height
  • Poor coordination
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Face abnormalities (smooth skin between the nose and upper lip, upturned nose, thin upper lip)
  • Deformities in joints and limbs
  • Poor bone health
  • Heart defects
  • Liver problems 2,3

As they grow older, people with fetal alcohol syndrome will start to present a variety of behavioral problems that become more and more noticeable.

Behavioral and learning conditions from fetal alcohol syndrome can include:

  • Poor attention
  • Hyperactivity
  • Memory problems
  • Impulsivity
  • Difficulty in school
  • Poor social skills
  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech and language delays 2,3

How Much Alcohol Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

There is no exact amount of alcohol that will lead to FAS, but the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome does increase with the amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy. Even moderate drinking may cause damage to the developing baby.4 Because there is no good cut-off for alcohol consumption, most sources recommend not drink during pregnancy at all. Those who are struggling to stop drinking should seek alcohol addiction treatment immediately to avoid a serious problem.

Any amount of alcohol ingested by the pregnant individual passes through the placenta to the fetus. Because the developing fetus cannot break down alcohol as quickly or effectively as an adult, it will be exposed to the alcohol for a longer amount of time. The result can be a series of different problems as alcohol interferes with the fetus’s development.

If you do drink during pregnancy, it is better to tell your doctor right away so they can diagnose the condition and develop a plan for moving forward. While a fetal alcohol syndrome diagnosis does involve permanent damage, early intervention can minimize the impact of the condition on the child’s life. A supportive home environment, training, counseling, and medications can all help children grow up healthier and happier.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome & Alcohol Addiction

Giving up alcohol during pregnancy is not easy for every parent-to-be. For those who struggle with alcohol abuse, staying sober while pregnant is an incredible challenge but is in the best interest of both parent and child.

While severe fetal alcohol syndrome is uncommon, other problems for the baby can arise from drinking alcohol while pregnant. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders include less severe conditions but are 10 times as common as fetal alcohol syndrome.4

Not only can exposure to alcohol in the womb be damaging but also having an alcoholic parent can lead to a variety of psychological and emotional problems. Many children of alcoholics struggle with depression, attention-seeking behavior, harsh self-judgment, trouble in school, addiction, and problems with personal relationships.5

Alcohol abuse is not only dangerous for the child but also the parent. Excessive and regular drinking can lead to physical health problems, mental health conditions, relationship issues, financial struggles, and more.

In order to avoid FAS as well as other alcohol-related issues, getting professional help is in the best interest of both the child and parent. Addiction treatment during pregnancy will focus on the best way to safely wean the body off of drugs and alcohol while considering the prenatal needs of the unborn child.

If you aren’t going to get help for yourself, do it for your future baby. At, we have a variety of resources and information to help you with every step of addiction and recovery. Reach out to us today to learn more or to get started on the road to recovery.

1. PubMed - Moral Disorder

2. CDC - Fetal Alcohol Spectrum

3. MayoClinic - Fetal Alcohol Spectrum

4. NCBI - Drinking During Pregnancy

5. Vertava Health - How to Parent Drinking Affects Your Child

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