Drinking While Pregnant: Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Some pregnant women glow as if lit from the inside! Some of us are miserable from day one to birth-giving day. Being pregnant is hard work; it’s a sacrifice from start to finish and the finish is no picnic either! There are countless books on how to get pregnant and how to be pregnant, and they all mention the things a pregnant woman should not do, touch, or eat. Alcohol is near the top of most keep-away lists, and for good reason. However, in 2019’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers found that about 1 in 9 pregnant women reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days.

Mothers who drink alcohol while pregnant risk their babies being born with a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). reports that it is estimated that 40,000 children born each year have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, but it may be as many as 80,000 with half of them going undiagnosed. 


What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

FASD, previously known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, includes a group of conditions a baby may be born with if the mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy. FASD can affect both the body and the brain, and conditions range from mild to severe. A child with FASD may not develop an IQ beyond 60, which is considered mentally disabled in the United States, and community studies estimates of 6-7 year olds in the United States living with FASD could be as high as 2-5 percent of the population. 

Children with FASD often exhibit a collection of the following conditions:

-Low birth weight

-Smaller than typical head size

-Distinctive facial features such as: thin upper lip; smooth, wide area above the upper lip; short, upturned nose; smooth, wide-spaced eyes; and a flat face.

-Poor reasoning and judgement skills

-Low Intelligence Quotient (IQ) or intellectual disabilities

-Difficulty maintaining attention

-Speech and Language delays

-Higher than typical levels of activity (hyperactivity)

-Problems with heart, kidneys, and bones

-Learning disabilities

-Vision and/or hearing problems

-Poor coordination

-Sleeping and sucking problems in infancy

-Shorter than average height

It is estimated that a child born with FAS will cost $2 million over their lifetime between treatment and needs due to disability. The cost to the nation is about $6 billion per year. 


What Are the Causes?

There is only one cause of FASD: drinking alcohol while pregnant. When a pregnant mother drinks, the alcohol in the mother’s blood passes through the umbilical cord. Essentially, when a pregnant mother drinks, so does the baby. There is no “safe” time to drink during pregnancy. Local hopeful mother-to-be, Mandy M. shares, “I’m not pregnant yet, but we are trying. As soon as we started trying to get pregnant, I stopped drinking alcohol. I won’t know for a few weeks if we were successful, and I don’t want to put the baby at risk.” Her comments are in alignment with the CDC recommendations. 


What Are the Recommendations?

“There is no safe level of alcohol to consume when pregnant,” says Dr. April Mcculloh, a physician who specializes in Family Medicine at Baton Rouge General. “Even small amounts of alcohol in pregnancy can have adverse effects on crucial periods of fetal development, especially within the brain and other organs.” 


There are also no safe alcoholic beverages to drink during pregnancy–any beverage containing alcohol can cause FASD. In short–if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or could become pregnant (nearly half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned!)–avoid alcohol altogether. If you are pregnant and still drinking alcohol, it’s never too late to stop. The baby’s brain will continue to develop throughout the pregnancy, so stopping late is better than never. 


How is This Tested/Screened?

Diagnosing FASD can be challenging as there are no definitive medical tests, and the symptoms can mimic ADHD, Williams syndrome, and other conditions. Physicians often look for lower than average head size and birth weight, central nervous system problems, abnormal facial features, and prenatal alcohol exposure. If you suspect your child may have FASD, it is very important to speak with your healthcare provider about interventions. There’s no cure for FASD, but interventions can improve development. 


What Are the Treatments?

As with other disorders, early intervention can have a profound effect on those with FASD. Interventions can include medication to help manage symptoms, behavior and mental health counseling, educational interventions, and family and parenting training. Diagnoses before the age of six can help parents establish early intervention therapies. The public school system can also be a great resource for children with disabilities. Contact your local school board office to request a free educational evaluation for your child.  


Where Do You Get Help?

For more information about FASD, visit the CDC website; American Academy of Pediatrics FASD Toolkit (; National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (; and your child’s pediatrician.


The Last Word

Local mental health counselor Star Marks shares, “All of the research states to treat the child at the level they are at both physically and emotionally. Stay focused on positive affirmation and look to point out wins versus short falls. Don’t move too fast or push too hard in therapy or any other rehabilitative measures, such as occupational or physical therapies. If the child’s sensory system is receiving too much information too quickly, the child will likely shut down and stop receiving all outside information. Try to have realistic goals for both the child and the family. This isn’t necessarily a situation where the child ‘won’t’ do something rather than ‘can’t’ do what you are asking at this time.”