Skip to content

How Alcohol Affects Fetal Development

    You might want to think twice about that glass of wine over dinner or cracking open a cold one after a long day, especially if you’re expecting a child or making an effort to get pregnant.

    Even though evidence suggests that one glass of red wine a day is beneficial to your health, that doesn’t mean it’s beneficial to your baby. Drinking during pregnancy is known to cause a range of negative outcomes such as stillbirth, learning and behavioral disabilities, and defects that will affect your baby throughout his or her life.

    Roughly one in ten women, during pregnancy, drink alcohol. Also, one in thirty-three women reported binge drinking while pregnant. These numbers are staggering and may be indicative of the rise in birthing complications due to alcohol.

    The effects of alcohol on an unborn child can be severe and life-threatening. Some symptoms and issues can be effectively managed after birth. However, there are certain side-effects of alcohol in a developing child that remain for life.

    Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

    During the process of intoxication, alcohol enters the bloodstream. When a woman is pregnant and decides to drink, the alcohol goes right to the baby through the bloodstream.

    There is no evidence that suggests a certain type of alcoholic beverage will cause more damage than another. However, the more a woman drinks while pregnant, the chances of the child developing serious issues due to exposure to alcohol increase.

    Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS, occurs when babies are exposed to alcohol before they are born. A few side-effects of FAS in unborn children are:

    • Smaller size
    • Differences in their face – small, narrow eyes, lip deformities,
    • Extreme irritability
    • Tremors and shaking (symptoms of alcohol withdrawal)
    • Problems with latching or feeding altogether
    • Problems with their gastrointestinal tract
    • Heart rate fluctuation
    • Breathing difficulties

    These effects are more common in newborn babies if they survive alcohol exposure in the womb. The child will experience symptoms of FAS throughout their life, depending on the amount of alcohol their mother consumed and the severity of the side-effects.

    As the child ages, the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome manifest itself in other ways. Toddlers and teens might experience symptoms such as:

    • Learning disabilities
    • Inability to function properly (behaviors)
    • Difficulty paying attention or staying focused
    • Problems following directions
    • Lack of social skills
    • Delayed growth (they might be smaller than other children their age)
    • Birth defects (facial or developmental deformities)

    Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Early Labor

    Alcohol use, depending on the woman, can lead to extremely traumatic experiences. Since every woman responds differently to both alcohol and pregnancy, the effects can vary.

    Miscarriage occurs when the fetus isn’t developing normally. The process of a miscarriage cannot be reversed once started, and alcohol use during early pregnancy can increase the chances of this happening. A miscarriage usually occurs within the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy.

    However, a woman can finish out the pregnancy and give birth to a baby who is unable to survive on its own. This is commonly referred to as a stillbirth.

    Giving birth to a stillborn baby is one of the more severe side-effects of alcohol exposure in infants. If a baby is born without an inability to survive outside of the uterus, it means that they are suffering growth restrictions and chromosomal disorders, both of which occur due to alcohol altering the growth of the fetus in utero.

    Unfortunately, these specific effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy cannot be reversed. In the case that the baby survives alcohol exposure, there is a chance that the mother will go into labor early – meaning the baby will face a number of problems during their first life experiences outside of the womb.

    Socioemotional Function

    Prenatal alcohol exposure leads to increased levels of irritability in infants. As the child grows, this affects their ability to socialize or distinguish who to be social towards. There is evidence that suggests children who suffer from FAS are generally more aggressive and less socially competent than those who were not exposed to alcohol.

    These effects can vary in severity depending on how the child is raised. However, certain studies suggest that these ideas and social skills carry into adulthood. This can lead to a number of co-occurring disorders, such as:

    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Addiction
    • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

    Learning Disabilities

    The least severe effect of FAS is intellectual growth. Since alcohol use during pregnancy affects the rate of growth in the fetus, the baby can be born with impaired cognitive abilities compared to children who aren’t introduced to alcohol before birth.

    Hyperactivity sometimes occurs in these children—typically around age 2—and remains with them throughout their life. Although this can be treated, the severity of the child’s learning disability determines how and if treatment will be effective. The child may also suffer from an inability to focus for long durations of time and might become easily distracted or find it difficult to pay attention.

    Although mental impairment is common in children who suffer from the effects of alcohol, they are still able to function somewhat normally. They might, however, experience difficulties in most aspects of their intellectual functioning.

    How to Stop Drinking If You Are Pregnant or Expecting

    No mother ever wants to put their child in harm’s way. Unfortunately, alcoholism is prevalent in today’s society and sometimes prevents individuals from making the best decisions for their children. A woman expecting or trying to have a child may also be suffering from the disease of alcoholism and face the inability to act along with their moral code. Also, quitting alcohol can lead to undesired effects in the mother as well as the unborn child if the woman does not seek professional help to quit.

    The best way to ensure that your child is safe from the effects of alcohol in the womb is to seek treatment for alcoholism. By going through the detox process and addressing the psychological root of addiction, you can create a better future for your children.