Fetal Alcohol Syndrome In Babies: How It Happens

Drinking During Pregnancy & Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Being pregnant can be a wonderful and joyous occasion. There are many new things to experience, prepare for, and expect! Pregnancy can bring along big changes. While these big changes are often welcome there are some that can be particularly tough. One of these changes is giving up drinking!  While giving up drinking for the next 9 months might be hard, your baby’s life and whole future depends on it. The consequences of drinking alcohol during pregnancy are horrific.  Keep reading to learn what makes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome such a tragic and preventable disorder.


Alcohol has far-reaching effects. Even in a grown adult, alcohol alters completely developed organs and affects processes and mechanisms within the body. Alcohol affects brain chemistry and can cause physiological dependence. It alters judgement, decision-making, moods, and emotions. In addition, it affects major organs aside from the brain, such as the heart and the liver. These organs can suffer permanent or long-lasting effects that affect an individual’s daily life. In more extreme cases, in the event of an alcohol overdose or excessive drinking, there can even be coma or death.  With all of the harmful effects that alcohol can have on an adult, what can it do to a developing fetus?

Pregnancy Development

A developing fetus is forming all of their organs, tissues, and bodily processes throughout their nine months. The first three months are especially vital in regards to the formation of organs and blood vessels for a fetus. A fetus receives all of its nutrients from the placenta. While the placenta does filter out some harmful particles, alcohol is not filtered out. It passes across the placenta to the fetus.  In an adult, the liver metabolizes alcohol and helps rid the body of harmful byproducts. In a fetus, alcohol is considered a teratogen. A teratogen is a toxic substance for a fetus. The fetus cannot metabolize alcohol because its liver may not be developed yet, and even if it has, it does not function in a manner that is able to do any type of effective metabolizing.

Drinking While Pregnant

If a pregnant woman drinks, then the baby drinks as well. The blood alcohol of the baby will be the same as the blood alcohol concentration of the mother, or even higher!  There is no safe time to drink any type or amount of alcohol during pregnancy.  Risks of drinking are highlighted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and they note that there is a heightened risk of stillbirth and miscarriage, amongst other risks.  Additionally, a baby can be born with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, which can be characterized by four different types of disorders.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. It is characterized by both physical abnormalities, issues with the central nervous system, and developmental problems.

Physical abnormalities in the face may include one or all of these:

  • abnormally flat upper lip
  • no philtrum (the structure between upper lip and nose)
  • small palpebral fissures (the space between the corners of the eye openings)

Other abnormalities can include:

  • bodily deformities
  • microcephaly (small head and brain)
  • problems with organ development
  • below the growth curve in height and weight

With regard to nervous system processes, children may have trouble with:

  • emotional regulation
  • processing information
  • problem solving
  • memory retention and retrieval
  • intellectual and learning disorders
  • moodiness
  • issues with poor judgement

Children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome typically have trouble with school, problems in social relationships, and problems with creating plans and reaching objectives.  As an adult, these individuals can have complications with independent functioning, mental health issues, and substance abuse.

How To Prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Even if a child does not have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or physical abnormalities, it does not mean that they are not affected psychologically, and physiologically. The individual may have one of the other disorders listed on the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. The differences that a person has may not even be apparent until later in life. To prevent any kind of FADS or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, it is important not to drink while pregnant at all!  Even if you’re just trying to conceive or just think you may be pregnant, it is in your and the potential child’s best interest to stop drinking if there is even a slight possibility that you may be pregnant.

Need Help Quitting?

It’s not easy to quit drinking alcohol for an entire 9 months of your life.  If drinking is an issue while pregnant, it is important to seek help!  Some doctors and people may not even be educated about the effects that drinking has on a fetus and therefore may make or advise poor decisions. Remember there is no safe drinking during pregnancy! Even post-pregnancy, if a mother is breastfeeding, drinking may still not be the best choice. There are other effects that drinking while breastfeeding may cause.  In any case, consult with a physician or call our 24/7 helpline if you find quitting drinking to be difficult or know a mom who does. Pregnancy can be an exciting but tough time. Mothers can use all of the support they can get!

Additional References: National Organization on Fetal Alcohol SyndromeMayo ClinicHealthlineWebMD