Alcohol Effects on a Fetus

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Alcohol Effects on a Fetus

Topic Overview

What effect does alcohol have on a fetus?

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:

  • Distinctive facial features. A child may have a small head, flat face, and narrow eye openings, for instance. This gets more obvious by age 2 or 3.
  • Growth problems. Children who were exposed to alcohol before they were born may be smaller than other children of the same age.
  • Learning and behaviour problems.
  • Birth defects.
  • Problems bonding or feeding as a newborn.

Heavy alcohol use during pregnancy can also lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or a baby being born early.

How much alcohol is safe?

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.

The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) recommend that pregnant women not drink any alcohol.1, 2

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:

  • How much, how often, and at what stage of pregnancy the mother drinks alcohol. The worst effects often are related to heavy alcohol use.
  • Whether the mother used other drugs, smoked, or had poor health for any reason while she was pregnant. In these cases, the child is more likely to have problems.
  • Traits passed down through families. Some babies are more likely to be harmed by alcohol than others. It’s not clear why, but there may be a genetic link.

What can you do if you're pregnant and have had alcohol?

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.

When are alcohol effects on a fetus diagnosed?

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.

What is the treatment for a child born with alcohol effects?

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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Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse
75 Albert Street
Suite 300
Ottawa, ON  K1P 5E7
Phone: (613) 235-4048
Fax: (613) 235-8101
Email: info@ccsa.ca
Web Address: www.ccsa.ca
 

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
Phone: (613) 526-9397
Fax: (613) 526-3332
Email: info@cps.ca
Web Address: www.cps.ca
 

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
Phone: 1-877-238-5332 (toll-free)
Phone: (613) 238-5721
Fax: (613) 235-5391
Email: info@ldac-acta.ca
Web Address: www.ldac-acta.ca
 

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.


Motherisk
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
Phone: (416) 813-6780 Motherisk's Home Line
Email: momrisk@sickkids.ca
Web Address: www.motherisk.org
 

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
A.L. 6501H
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.
Web Address: www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/index-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.


References

Citations

  1. Public Health Agency of Canada (2008). Alcohol and Pregnancy. Available online: http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/hp-gs/know-savoir/alc-eng.php.
  2. Canadian Paediatric Society (1997). 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.

Other Works Consulted

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/pressreleases/sg02222005.html.
  • 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: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/documents/FAS_guidelines_accessible.pdf.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Primary Medical Reviewer Donald Sproule, MD, CM, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Ernest L. Abel, PhD - Reproductive Toxicology
Last Revised April 20, 2011

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