Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol effects (FAE) are conditions associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy. FAS causes a variety of mental, physical, and developmental disabilities in the baby. FAE is a milder form of FAS.
If a pregnant woman drinks any alcohol at any time during pregnancy, the alcohol crosses the placenta to the fetus. Alcohol damages the developing cells of the fetus. The brain and central nervous system are particularly sensitive to alcohol and can suffer permanent damage.
Any amount can have some effect, so there is no minimum amount of alcohol in pregnancy that is safe. The developing fetus can't break down the alcohol as quickly as an adult, so its exposure to alcohol is actually higher than the mother's.
FAS and FAE are caused during pregnancy by the mother drinking alcohol. Alcohol damages the developing brain and nervous system of the baby, leading to mental, physical, and developmental problems.
The following factors affect whether FAS or FAE will occur and how severe the condition may be:
- timing of alcohol use during the pregnancy
- amount and frequency of alcohol consumption
- the mother's general health
- resources available to the mother
Consuming alcohol in any form during pregnancy is dangerous to the fetus. Alcohol is officially classified as a known teratogen, which means it can cause birth defects in the fetus. The more alcohol a pregnant woman drinks, the greater the risk of the fetus developing FAS or FAE. Drinking early in pregnancy may cause changes in the facial features, heart and other organs, bones, and the central nervous system. In the United States, about 12% of women report alcohol use during pregnancy.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies show that FAS occurs in about 0.2 to 1.5 of every 1,000 live births each year in certain parts of the United States. It is also estimated that about 1,000 babies will be born with FAE each year. The lack of awareness of the effects of alcohol on a developing fetus is one reason for the high incidence of FAS and FAE.