FFFDrinking Alcohol in Pregnancy (Fetal Alcohol Effects)

No. 93; May 2020

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, pregnant women should not drink any form of alcohol as it has been shown to cause serious and negative effects on the development of the baby (fetus). There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink when pregnant. In the United States, exposure of alcohol to the fetus is the most common cause of babies born with birth defects and intellectual disability. Exposure to alcohol during pregnancy causes damage to the brain and these are absolutely preventable effects.

Every year, thousands of children are born with the effects of prenatal (during pregnancy) exposure to alcohol. While many people drink, alcohol is poisonous to the child that growing inside of a woman. Drinking even one alcoholic drink per day during pregnancy risk serious, permanent birth defects. The use of alcohol during pregnancy can cause serious problems in children and adolescents:

  • Infants may show slow growth and developmental delay, unusual facial features, irritability, brain and neurological disorders, intellectual disabilities and problems with emotional attachment
  • Kids and school-age children may have problems with learning or reading, problems with focus and attention, low tolerance for frustration, and poor social boundaries
  • Teenagers can have continued learning problems, depression, anxiety and inappropriate sexual behavior

Negative effects and problems caused by drinking alcohol while pregnant are called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the most severe group of this spectrum caused by drinking alcohol while pregnant. FASDs can cause problems:

  • Remembering and learning
  • Speech and language delays
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Following directions
  • Shifting focus
  • Controlling emotions
  • Socializing
  • Poor memory
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidney, or bones
  • Performing daily life skills, including self-care counting money, telling time, and minding personal safety

Psychiatric disorders can also be caused by drinking during pregnancy such as:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Problems with hyperactivity, conduct, and impulse control
  • Increased risk of alcohol and other drug use disorders

Children who are suspected of FASDs must be carefully evaluated by a pediatrician, child and adolescent psychiatrist or other medical or mental health clinician. Fetal alcohol exposure is often missed as the cause of the problems in a child's behavior. The effects of alcohol on the developing brain during pregnancy are not reversible. However, early intervention can improve the chances of success for the child. Examples of early interventions for FASDs include occupational therapy, special educational services starting as early as preschool, mental health evaluation and support and speech therapy services.

If you are pregnant, or thinking about becoming pregnant, and find that it is impossible to stop drinking, talk with your doctor who can help. It is important to get treatment to stop drinking as soon as possible. There are programs available to help pregnant women stop drinking (for example, "12-step program" of Alcoholics Anonymous) can provide support to quit drinking.

You can learn more about the effects of alcohol in pregnancy at: