What Happens to a Fetus Exposed to Alcohol
Alcohol is a teratogen. A teratogen is something that causes birth defects. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can have serious effects on how the fetus develops.
Alcohol & the Developing Baby
Alcohol crosses through the placenta and affects how a baby is developing.1 It can be especially harmful to the baby’s brain, which is developing throughout the entire pregnancy.2 When alcohol is consumed during pregnancy, that baby is then has prenatal alcohol exposure. Click here to see what’s developing at each stage of pregnancy.
People with prenatal alcohol exposure may have trouble with things like:
Drinking during pregnancy can also cause:
- Heart problems4
- Increased risk of infections5
- Difficulty with movement6
- Other health issues
No Safe Time, No Safe Amount
Any amount of alcohol, even if it’s just one glass of wine, passes from the mother to the fetus.7 All major health groups state that there is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy.
These health groups include:
- Centers for Disease Control (CDC)8
- American Academy of Pediatrics9
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)10
- U.S. Surgeon General11
There is no safe time to drink during pregnancy. Drinking during any of the 3 trimesters can affect the fetus. It makes no difference if the alcohol is wine, beer, or hard liquor (like vodka or rum).12
1 Burd L, Blair J, Dropps K. Prenatal alcohol exposure, blood alcohol concentrations and alcohol elimination rates for the mother, fetus and newborn. Journal of Perinatology. 2012;32:652-659.
2 Hendrickson et al. Cortical gyrification is abnormal in children with prenatal alcohol exposure. NeuroImage: Clinical. 2017;15 391-400.
3 Flak AL, Su S, Bertrand J, Denny CH, Kesmodel US, Cogswell ME. The association of mild, moderate, and binge prenatal alcohol exposure and child neuropsychological outcomes: A Meta-analysis. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2014;38(1):214-26.
4 Westrup S. Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: as prevalent as autism?. Educational Psychology in Practice. 2013;29(3): 309-325.
5 Noor S, Milligan ED. Lifelong Impacts of Moderate Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on Neuroimmune Function. Frontiers in Immunology. 2018.
6 Taggart TC, Simmons RW, Thomas JD, Riley EP. Children with Heavy Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Exhibit Atypical Gait Characteristics. Alcoholism: Clinical &Experimental Research. 2017;41(9):1648-1655.
7 Burd L, Blair J, Dropps K. Prenatal alcohol exposure, blood alcohol concentrations and alcohol elimination rates for the mother, fetus and newborn. Journal of Perinatology. 2012;32:652-659.
8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html
9 American Academy of Pediatrics. AAP Says No Amount of Alcohol Should Be Considered Safe During Pregnancy. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/AAP-Says-No-Amount-of-Alcohol-Should-be-Considered-Safe-During-Pregnancy.aspx
10 American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) prevention program. https://www.acog.org/About-ACOG/ACOG-Departments/Tobacco–Alcohol–and-Substance-Abuse/Fetal-Alcohol-Spectrum-Disorders-Prevention-Program
11 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Notice to Readers: Surgeon General’s Advisory on Alcohol Use in Pregnancy. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5409a6.htm
12 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Use in Pregnancy. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html