Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Frequently Asked Questions

Preventable Birth Defect

Drinking during pregnancy puts the unborn child at risk for a range of disorders collectively known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), the most severe of which is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

Pregnant woman with a glass of wine
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Fetal alcohol syndrome may not be the leading cause of birth defects, but it is the Number one known preventable cause of mental retardation and birth defects, many of which are lifelong, and cannot be treated.

These are some of the most frequently asked questions we receive about fetal alcohol syndrome:

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome, a disorder characterized by growth retardation, facial abnormalities, and central nervous system dysfunction (CNS), is caused by a woman's use of alcohol during pregnancy. It is an incurable, permanent condition.

Can Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Be Treated?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is an irreversible, lifelong condition that affects every aspect of a child's life and the lives of his or her family members; however, With early identification and diagnosis, a child with FAS can receive services that can help maximize his or her potential.

Is Any Trimester Safe?

The adverse effects of alcohol on an unborn fetus can occur in every trimester. When a mother drinks alcohol so does her fetus because alcohol crosses the placenta freely. Again, there is no safe dose of alcohol in pregnancy, and there does not appear to be a safe period of pregnancy for drinking.

In general, though, abnormal facial features, organs, bones, etc., occur as a result of drinking during the first trimester; and decreased fetal growth is associated with drinking during the third trimester. The brain, on the other hand, is developing throughout all trimesters, so it can be affected throughout pregnancy.

What About the First Weeks of Pregnancy?

There are some studies that indicate that drinking in the early days of pregnancy — even before you may even know you are pregnant — can cause some harm to the fetus. However, one of the largest studies conducted on the subject found that consuming alcohol in the very early weeks of pregnancy did not put babies at risk.

How Much Alcohol Is Dangerous?

Any amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy is potentially dangerous to an unborn child. The sooner a woman quits drinking, the better it will be for both her and her baby. Quit drinking as soon as you realize that you are pregnant. It's never too late in the pregnancy to quit.

How Common Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

The reported prevalence rates of fetal alcohol syndrome vary widely depending on the population studied and the intensity of case ascertainment. In the general population, estimates vary from 0.7 cases per 1,000 to 1.0 cases per 1,000 live births with higher rates (e.g., 3 per 1,000 live births) among American Indian and Alaska natives. Other neurodevelopmental effects of alcohol are believed to occur more frequently.

What are FAE, ARND, and ARDD?

In the past, fetal alcohol effects (FAE) was generally used to describe children who had prenatal alcohol exposure but only manifested two of the three major components of FAS (i.e., growth retardation, typical facial and central nervous system impairment).

Because experts in the field were unable to agree on the case definition for FAE, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) coined two terms that separately described disabilities and central nervous system abnormalities associated with prenatal alcohol exposure: alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disabilities (ARND) and alcohol-related developmental disabilities (ARDD).

How Does Alcohol Cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Problems?

Alcohol in the mother's blood crosses the placenta freely and enters the embryo or fetus through the umbilical cord. The exact mechanisms by which alcohol damages the fetus and critical times of exposure are not known; however, exposure during the first trimester results in the structural defects (i.e., facial changes) characteristic of FAS, whereas the growth and central nervous system disturbances could occur from alcohol use during any time in pregnancy.

What Are the Effects of Prenatal Alcohol on the Fetus?

In the worst cases, prenatal exposure to alcohol may result in fetal death. If a woman drinks while pregnant, she puts her developing fetus at risk for a wide spectrum of adverse effects including spontaneous abortion; growth retardation; physical, mental, and behavioral abnormalities; facial abnormalities; and central nervous system impairment, such as developmental delay, speech or language delay, lower IQ, and decreased head circumference.

Does Drinking During Pregnancy Always Result in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

No, but research has not been able to determine the amount of alcohol that will affect fetal development, so the U.S. Public Health Service recommends that pregnant women consume no alcohol. For those women who continue to drink, the effects on their unborn children can depend on how much they drink. Some fetal alcohol children exhibit only a few symptoms of FAS, while others can be profoundly affected.

What If I Only Drink Beer or Wine Coolers?

All drinks containing alcohol can hurt an unborn baby. A standard 12-ounce can of beer has the same amount of alcohol as a 4-ounce glass of wine or a 1-ounce shot of straight liquor. In addition, some alcoholic drinks — such as malt beverages and wine coolers — often contain more alcohol than regular beer.

How Much Alcohol Can I Drink Without My Child Developing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Sorry, but there is no known safe amount of alcohol that women can drink while pregnant. Any time a pregnant woman engages in regular drinking, she increases her chance of having a spontaneous abortion and puts her unborn child at risk for growth deficiencies, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems.

How Do I Know My Child Has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

If you think your child may be suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, contact a doctor or other healthcare provider. There is a long list of symptoms associated with fetal alcohol exposure, but many of them could be caused by other conditions or diseases.

Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Hereditary?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is not hereditary. Fetal alcohol syndrome can only occur if a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy. Currently, it is not known why some children are more likely to develop fetal alcohol syndrome than other children if their mothers drank during pregnancy.

A Word From Verywell

Because there is no cure for FAS, it is critical that women who are pregnant or who might become pregnant do not consume alcohol. Drinking during pregnancy puts your unborn child at risk to develop fetal alcohol syndrome. No amount of alcohol is safe to drink during this time.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.