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Alcohol and pregnancy

The risks involved with alcohol use during pregnancy:

Alcohol consumption by the mother is a leading cause of preventable birth defects in the fetus. Everything a mother drinks also goes to the fetus. Alcohol is broken down more slowly in the immature body of the fetus than in an adult's body. This can cause the alcohol levels to remain high and stay in the baby's body longer. In addition, the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth increases with alcohol consumption.

One major consequence of drinking alcohol during pregnancy is a serious condition called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS is the leading cause of mental retardation. In addition, FAS is characterized by the following:

  • growth retardation in the fetus
  • facial defects
  • behavioral problems
  • eating and sleeping problems in the baby
  • sight and hearing problems
  • the need for medical care during the child's life
  • deformed organs
  • central nervous system dysfunction

A less severe, but still detrimental form of fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition called fetal alcohol effects (FAE). FAE is present in a larger population of newborns in the US and is characterized by some physical or mental defects that can be directly attributed to alcohol use during pregnancy.

The full picture of FAS usually occurs in babies born to alcoholic mothers, or those who drink more than four to five drinks/day. Even light or moderate drinking can affect the developing fetus. Because no amount of alcohol is safe, the US Surgeon General recommends that pregnant women avoid alcohol during pregnancy.

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Watch: Fetal Q&A

Dr. Wagner and Dr. Cruz
Answering questions about high-risk pregnancies, fetal diagnosis and fetal treatment. Learn more.