The message for alcohol and pregnancy is clear: no amount is safe, when it comes to protecting the health of the mother and the unborn child. In the U.S., statistics indicate that one out of every eight expectant mothers uses alcohol, and one out of every 30 will participate in a binge drinking episode during pregnancy.
Referred to as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, or FASDs, the health problems resulting from a mother consuming alcohol during pregnancy are preventable but can span the child’s lifetime. Developmental and physical delays are possible, as well as heart problems, brain problems and damage to the baby’s organs. Many of the side effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy can affect the child well into their adult years, especially those that impact the way the baby looks and develops or interfere with behavior.
A myth expectant mothers may believe concerning alcohol is that a small amount will not cause harm, especially if she is past the first trimester. Experts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say one can of beer contains an equivalent amount of alcohol as an average glass of wine, and that no amount of alcohol is considered safe for the child. There is also no “safe” time to consume alcohol, as its harmful effects can occur at any stage of the pregnancy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers resource materials and guides for physicians and patients designed to help prevent alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Unlike other disorders, there is no blood test that can clearly determine if a child has been exposed to alcohol during development. Symptoms may occur at birth or be seen later as the child encounters developmental delays or difficulties.
Symptoms of FASD can include facial irregularities or abnormalities, such as in the area between the upper lip and the nose, or lower than expected weight or height. Some children who have experienced damage related to alcohol use during pregnancy may have a smaller than normal head size or show difficulties paying attention or with activities related to coordination.
While there is no cure for damage caused by a mother’s exposure to alcohol during pregnancy, certain therapies and behavioral interventions may help the child develop more normally. Children who are diagnosed with FASD prior to turning six years old may have some additional protection from the long-term effects, as well as those who live in homes without violence.
Any woman who is planning to become pregnant or is pregnant should stop consuming all alcohol or seek immediate help from a physician, as each alcoholic beverage reaches the fetus through the placenta. The damage caused by alcohol to an unborn baby – often irreversible throughout the child’s life – is completely preventable. By abstaining from alcohol, an expectant mother can help ensure a healthy start to her child’s physical and mental development.