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Fetal Alcohol Exposure Can Cause a Variety of Birth Defects

Drinking While Pregnant Affects Child's Development

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Updated May 06, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Fetal alcohol exposure is risky

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Despite all of the warnings about birth defects or developmental disabilities caused by drinking alcohol while pregnant, research shows that one in eight women continue to drink throughout their pregnancies, a percentage that hasn't substantially changed in the past 15 years.

Many women continue to drink while pregnant even though it can cause a wide range of physical, mental, behavioral and learning disabilities in children, some of which can have lifelong implications.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The most widely known effect of alcohol consumption during pregnancy is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a lifelong condition that includes many physical and mental disabilities, such as abnormal facial features, growth deficiencies and central nervous system problems.

Children with fetal alcohol syndrome can also develop a wide range of secondary conditions that include mental health problems, disruption of education, legal problems, inappropriate sexual behavior, drug and alcohol problems and problems with daily living.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Fetal alcohol syndrome is relatively rare, occurring in only 0.5 to 2.0 times per 1,000 births in the United States. There are other, less severe defects and disabilities, known collectively as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which can occur approximately three times as often as FAS.

Over the years, research has found that alcohol consumption during pregnancy can affect children on many different levels. Following are some of the specific effects that fetal alcohol exposure can produce.

Lower IQ Scores

A study at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that children whose mothers drank while they were pregnant recorded lower IQ scores at age 10, compared to children whose mothers did not drink. The effect was seen even when mothers were light to moderate drinkers. This was especially true for African-American children.

Smaller Brain Size

Babies whose mothers continue to drink heavily during pregnancy have smaller skulls and brains compared to babies whose mothers did not drink or those who quit when they found out they were pregnant, a University of New Mexico study found. The infants in the study also had smaller cerebellums, the region of the brain involved in mental, motor and sensory tasks.

Learning, Memory Disabilities

Many studies have shown that heavy drinking during pregnancy can affect the learning and memory capabilities of children, but another University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that this also occurs in children whose mothers were light to moderate drinkers. The study of 580 children from birth to age 16 found that even small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can have a significant impact on child development.

Slower Processing Speed

A Wayne State University study found that fetal alcohol exposure can cause slower processing and attention speeds even in infancy for babies of heavy drinkers during pregnancy. Researchers found when infants cannot maximize learning efficiency it can cause a cumulative deficit over time, resulting in lower IQ scores and difficulties in learning basic functional and academic skills.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Researchers have found a possible link between fetal alcohol exposure and the development of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A study of rats at the Research Institute on Addictions found that alcohol can damage the region of the brain that is responsible for attention. By damaging the brain, alcohol during pregnancy ultimately reduces dopamine neuron activity, which can affect attention.

Infertility in Males

One Danish study found that mothers who drink during pregnancy can possibly cause fertility problems in their male offspring. The study found that males who had been exposed to alcohol use while in the womb had sperm concentrations one third lower than those men exposed to little or no alcohol in the womb. Lower sperm counts have been linked to fertility problems.

Visual Problems

When children have other symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome, they may also have problems with the sharpness of their vision. Children exposed to alcohol in the womb because their mothers were binge drinkers, had a greater risk for poor visual acuity. This was also seen in children of mothers over age 30 who were light to moderate drinkers.

Newborn Infection Risks

An Emory University study of 872 infants found that mothers who self-reported alcohol use, excessive drinking or smoking were more likely to give birth to a newborn with an infection, compared with mothers who abstained from drinking and smoking. Even mothers who did not smoke, but drank alcohol, were more likely to have newborns with infections.

Risk of Leukemia

Acute myeloid leukemia is very rare in children, with only 700 cases per year reported in the United States. However, French researchers found in a small study of 21 children who had the disease that the risk of developing myeloid leukemia increased by 56% if the children were exposed to alcohol in the womb.

Risk for Alcohol Abuse

Two studies have found that teenagers of mothers who drank while they were pregnant are at greater risk for developing alcohol abuse problems themselves because they developed a preference for the taste and smell of alcohol in the womb. Both of the studies were conducted with laboratory rats, but those exposed to alcohol in the womb drank significantly more than those not exposed.

No Safe Limit for Alcohol While Pregnant

The scientific studies mentioned above and many others have shown that alcohol consumption during pregnancy can have negative effects on children. What none of these studies has determined is how much alcohol it takes to produce those negative outcomes. Therefore, it is currently recommended that women stop drinking completely as soon as they find out they are pregnant or if they are trying to become pregnant.

Sources:

Carter, RC, et al, "Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on Infant Visual Acuity." The Journal of Pediatrics. October 2005.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Alcohol Use Among Pregnant and Nonpregnant Women of Childbearing Age --- United States, 1991--2005." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 21 May 2009.

Gauthier, TW, et al, "Maternal Alcohol Abuse and Neonatal Infection." Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. June 2005.

Handmaker, NS, et al, "Impact of Alcohol Exposure After Pregnancy Recognition on Ultrasonographic Fetal Growth Measures." Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. May 2006.

Kable, JA, et al, "The Impact of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on Neurophysiological Encoding of Environmental Events at Six Months." Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. March 2004.

Latin-Martel, P. et al. "Maternal Alcohol Consumption during Pregnancy and Risk of Childhood Leukemia: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis." Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. May 2010.

Shen, RY, et al, "Prenatal Ethanol Reduces the Activity of Adult Midbrain Dopamine Neurons."Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. November 1999.

Willford, JA, et al, "Moderate Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Cognitive Status of Children at Age 10."Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. June 2006.

Willford, JA, et al, "Verbal and Visuospatial Learning and Memory Function in Children With Moderate Prenatal Alcohol Exposure."Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. March 2004.

Youngentob, SL, et. al. "The Effect of Gestational Ethanol Exposure on Voluntary Ethanol Intake in Early Postnatal and Adult Rats (PDF)" Behavioral Neuroscience. December 2007.

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