Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: Understanding the Effects of Drinking on the Growing Baby

Some mothers believe that an occasional drink during pregnancy is perfectly safe. What is the truth about the effects of alcohol on your baby as he or she grows?

For years, women believed that only “heavy drinking” would cause their babies to have serious problems. New information about drinking during pregnancy shows that there are a host of problems that can result from prenatal exposure to alcohol yet the facts don’t make their way to women who may become pregnant. Here are answers to the most common questions about fetal alcohol syndrome, also known as FAS.

What is the difference between FAS and FASDs?

The latest term used to indicate this range of problems is known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (or FASDs). Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) now refers to the most severe complications that can result from drinking during pregnancy.

How Many Babies are Born with FASDs?

The number of babies who suffer from the effects of FASDs is approximately .2 to 2 in every 2,000 or similar to the incidence of Down Syndrome or spina bifida. No surprise that FASDs is the leading cause of mental retardation in the western world. This fact is all the more disturbing since FASDs is 100% preventable if mothers do not drink any alcohol during their pregnancies.

What are the Effects of FASDs?

So what can happen to your baby if you drink during your pregnancy? Here are some of the ways that alcohol can cause harm to your baby:

  1. Being small for the baby’s gestational age or small in stature.
  2. Having facial abnormalities such as small eye openings.
  3. Having learning problems, language and speech delays.
  4. Mental retardation or a low IQ.
  5. Hyperactivity.
  6. Problems with poor judgment and reasoning abilities.

Long-term research also demonstrates that adults who have been diagnosed with FASDs are more likely to have difficulties with mental health, delinquency, problems with the law, alcohol and drug abuse and living independently.

Why Does Alcohol Cause Problems with Growing Babies?

Scientists have studied the effects of alcohol on a growing fetus for many years; however, there is little research about why drinking during pregnancy causes problems. What does alcohol actually do to the baby’s brain and cells as they are growing to cause so much harm?

The most likely reason alcohol has such a detrimental effect on babies is because it causes the cells to die. Scientists also speculate that alcohol disrupts the connections between neurons in the babies’ brains. Suffice it to say, alcohol does not cause behavioral and learning problems in the growing baby, but it also directly alters how the baby’s brain forms and develops.

When During Pregnancy will Baby be Most Susceptible to FASDs?

There does seem to be a correlation to not only how much alcohol is consumed, but when the baby is exposed to the alcohol. If the mother has been drinking during the first 8 weeks of pregnancy, it is much more likely for the baby to have the classic facial and head abnormalities of FASDs.

Based on animal studies, scientists have seen that the most severe brain damage occurs if there are binge drinking patterns in the first 4 to 6 weeks of pregnancy versus smaller amounts of continuous daily consumption. Yet researchers have discovered that no matter when the baby has been exposed to alcohol in utero, the internal structure of the baby’s brain is injured.

Although many studies have focused on the sensitivity of the first trimester, alcohol exposure in the last trimester of pregnancy can result in problems as one study showed. Reading scores were much lower in the children whose mothers continued to drink alcohol in their last trimester.

What Amount of Alcohol can Cause FAS or FASDs?

One of the most startling aspects about fetal alcohol spectrum disorders is that even the smallest amount of alcohol can affect baby’s development. Even if a woman has just one binge drinking episode in early pregnancy, it can lead to mental retardation in the baby. Research has shown that one incident of binge drinking where the mother has 5-6 drinks during a very critical period in the first weeks of pregnancy can cause the facial deformities and brain damage/mental retardation associated with FAS.

A more moderate drinking pattern of two drinks per day can also lead to FAS. One study found that 2-4 drinks every day resulted in a 1 in 10 chance that the baby would have FAS.

Even smaller amounts of alcohol (equivalent to 1/2 drink per day) result in decreased scores in verbal comprehension and language at about 1 year of age.

Given the gravity of what we know about fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and fetal alcohol syndrome, it makes sense for any woman who is trying to become pregnant or even sexually active but not using reliable forms of contraception to avoid alcohol.

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