Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Alcohol and many other mood-altering, mind-bending substances cross the placenta easily, so the unborn child uses anytime the mother does. More has been written about alcohol’s effect on the fetus than about other drugs, so we will begin by considering alcohol only.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) can cause:

  • Retarded growth before and after birth
  • Impaired brain and nerves
  • Mental retardation
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactivity
  • Face and skull abnormalities
  • Birth defects
  • Spontaneous abortion

About one in seven hundred fifty babies are born with clear symptoms of FAS, but about one in seventy-five have some effects from the alcohol consumed during pregnancy.

How Much Alcohol?

How much alcohol does it take to cause FAS? There are no clear answers to that question. When alcohol crosses the placenta, the blood-alcohol level of the fetus rises until it matches the mother’s. This may not seem to be a problem if the mother does not get drunk, but remember that the fetus is much smaller and its detoxification system is not well developed. Because of this the blood-alcohol levels drop more slowly in the fetus and alcohol can be detected in the fetus after it has disappeared from maternal blood.

Father’s Part

There is also evidence from animal studies that drinking by the father before conception can affect birth weight, learning ability, and other factors. It is not yet known whether and how much this may contribute to FAS.

No Alcohol

The Surgeon General of the US has said that pregnant women should drink absolutely no alcohol, and the editors of the journal of the American Medical Association have said that women should stop drinking as soon as they plan to become pregnant. Most documented cases of FAS show that mothers drank an average of five or more drinks a day throughout their pregnancy. Even those physicians who do not advise total abstinence during pregnancy suggest no more than two drinks a day.

Powerlessness There is an irony here. Nonalcoholic women have no difficulty giving up alcohol throughout their pregnancy, because FAS is the one birth defect that is totally preventable. But alcoholic women may be unable to stop, and for them their guilt and shame about drinking during pregnancy may add to their pain. The addiction will, of course, use this pain as an excuse to drink. That’s why alcoholics need a First Step.

Other Drugs

Other drugs also affect the fetus. Cocaine babies are common enough in many parts of the United States that there is a crisis in the availability of critical care neonatal units to deal with them. Caffeine intake of two or more cups of coffee a day has been linked to increased risk of spontaneous abortion. Tobacco use during pregnancy stunts fetal growth, increasing risk of retarded development, low birth weight, and other birth complications. One study showed smoking during pregnancy doubles the risk of cancer and leukemia in children.


Even dieting during pregnancy is hazardous. Low-carbohydrate diets or fasts that cause ketosis deprive the fetal brain of glucose needed for proper development. Such diets may also prevent proper nutrition of the fetus.

Freedom from Guilt

If you feel guilty for drinking, smoking, starving, or using during a past pregnancy, look to Steps Eight and Nine and the love of your Higher Power for forgiveness. If you are thinking of a present or future pregnancy, go directly to Step One, and the available Twelve-Step fellowships, and treatment, if necessary, to help save two or more lives.

Fetal alcohol syndrome, see also: Addiction, Alcohol, Alcoholism, Physical aspects, Responsibility, Unmanageability, Withdrawal.

Updated 7 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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