After a pregnant woman ingests any kind of alcoholic drink, the alcohol swiftly passes through the umbilical cord, reaching the fetus. There, it affects the brain, central nervous system (CNS), heart, eyes, ears, legs, arms, teeth, external genitalia, and palate of the fetus. If the mother continues to drink throughout her pregnancy, this constant exposure to alcohol’s effects will cause cumulative effects, according to Emory University. As the fetus grows, the alcohol continues exerting its effect, delaying normal growth and putting the unborn child at risk of several physical, emotional, mental and intellectual problems.
No Amount of Alcohol Is Safe
If a pregnant woman drinks a glass of wine, bottle of beer, or a small amount of hard liquor, it passes through to the fetus just like food and nonalcoholic beverages. Some people mistakenly believe that it’s okay to drink late in pregnancy when the unborn baby is nearly completely formed, but the baby’s brain and other body systems are still too immature to be exposed to alcohol in any amount.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 0.2-1.5 infants out of every 1,000 live births have fetal alcohol syndrome disorder. Physical exams of children led health experts and researchers to say that 2-5 percent of children are affected with FASD.
How Alcohol Passes to the BabyAlcohol moves through the placenta via the umbilical cord. During pregnancy, the placenta is the only source of nutrition for the unborn child, which makes it easy for alcohol to reach the baby, according to the March of Dimes. There, it enters the baby’s developing body, affecting every organ and body system.
It isn’t only the pregnant woman who is responsible for ensuring she doesn’t drink. Her partner or spouse should also take the responsibility of ensuring that she completely abstains from any alcohol throughout her pregnancy, recommends the Texas A&M Health Science Center. Her partner may want to consider abstaining as well – doing so may make it easier for the woman to successfully abstain.
The partner’s consumption of alcohol may have an effect on the child’s development, especially if that person drinks heavily.
Even if the pregnant woman hasn’t had anything to drink, but her partner drinks regularly or heavily, this may lead to mental, intellectual or physical issues for the child after birth.
In addition, alcohol negatively affects men’s sperm cells. As the sperm fertilizes the woman’s egg, it introduces the effects of the alcohol to the newly fertilized embryo.
Effects of Alcohol on an Unborn Baby
A pregnant woman places her unborn child at risk of several issues if she continues to drink while she’s pregnant. These problems can include:
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Miscarriage (fetus dies before the 20th week of pregnancy)
- Birth defects (hearing issues or heart defects)
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders
- Stillbirth (fetus dies after 20 weeks of pregnancy)
In cases of fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the baby may have several distinctive features of the disorder. Physical features include:
- Small head
- Being shorter than peers
- Low weight
- Smooth ridge between nose and upper lip
Cognitive issues can include poor memory, attention difficulties, problems with math skills, learning disabilities, speech and language delays, low IQ, and poor judgment skills. The child experiences hyperactivity and behavioral issues. In addition, they may have heart, skeletal, kidney, vision, or hearing problems, according to the CDC.
The child can also suffer from mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. They may develop problems controlling impulses and conduct, and acting out at home and in school.
The child may be placed at risk of developing a dependence on alcohol or other substances, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). If an infant or school-aged child was exposed to alcohol before birth, they may not exhibit physical characteristics, but will still experience behavioral and cognitive difficulties.
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Risks of Alcohol to the Pregnant Woman
Alcohol can also affect the pregnant woman negatively, especially if she is struggling with addiction issues. She may suffer from poor nutrition, smoke, or weigh less than average. She may have had several pregnancies and children as well, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, putting multiple babies at risk for FAS.
These issues all place her unborn child at risk of developing alcohol-related health issues as well. She may come from a family of heavy drinkers, which makes abstention difficult for her throughout her pregnancy. After the baby is born, her drinking habits may affect her parenting and caregiving abilities, resulting in negative effects for both her and her child.
Binge drinking is defined as drinking four or more drinks at one time for women, according to NIAAA. If a pregnant woman binge drinks regularly, her unborn child is at a higher risk of developing severe behavioral and health issues. Heavy drinking is defined as five or more instances of binge drinking in a one-month period. Clearly, heavy drinking is a serious risk to pregnant women and their unborn babies, but even one episode of binge drinking can put a pregnant woman at serious risk.
Drinking heavily lowers usual defenses, making it more likely that a person will engage in sexual behavior without taking precautions against pregnancy. A woman may continue drinking, especially if she doesn’t realize she is pregnant. If she struggles with an addiction to alcohol, she may find it extremely difficult to abstain from drinking.
Women in relationships with violent romantic partners may try to hide their pregnancies. As they do so, they continue drinking to cover the fact they are pregnant.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
The CDC specifies two different syndromes that babies develop as the result of exposure to alcohol before birth. These are fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. These include:
- Partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS)
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
- Alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder (ARND)
- Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE)
Children suffering from pFAS don’t have every symptom common to full-blown FAS. Children with ARND suffer from abnormalities of the central nervous system, which can include both behavioral or cognitive problems, according to NIAAA. Stunted growth and facial abnormalities may not be present.
Children with ND-PAE show signs of prenatal alcohol exposure and central nervous system problems. They are unable to regulate their behaviors, have cognitive issues, and exhibit difficulty adapting to new situations.
Children born with FAS show signs of prenatal alcohol exposure, narrow eye openings, lack a ridge between the upper lip and nose, a thin upper lip, and central nervous system problems.
Effects of Alcohol on the Fetus’s Central Nervous System
Exposure to alcohol in the womb begins in the earliest weeks of pregnancy, according to Emory University. In the third week, alcohol affects the fetus’s heart and central nervous system. As the mother’s drinking continues, the fetus’s eyes, arms, legs, and heart can be negatively affected.
In week six, the teeth and ears may be affected as the mother continues to drink. At this point, she probably suspects she may be pregnant, but may have not confirmed the pregnancy. If she continues to drink, the fetus’s palate and external genitalia (the genitalia visible to the human eye) are affected. This continues through the 12th week, or third month.
In the 12th week through to the infant’s birth, the brain will be adversely affected by frequent exposure to alcohol, leading to the cognitive, learning, and behavioral effects of exposure to alcohol before birth.
Once a woman is ready to become pregnant, she should stop drinking and abstain from alcohol use throughout her pregnancy. If she struggles with an addiction to alcohol, she should reach out to programs that will help her to obtain recovery so her baby will be born healthy.
A pregnant woman, or any person, who is addicted to alcohol should never attempt to stop drinking on their own. Professional help and medical detox are needed to manage potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. In addition, pregnant women have special considerations during addiction treatment to ensure the safety of the mother and baby.