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Understanding Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Drinking a small amount of alcohol isn’t harmful unless you are pregnant. That's because any alcohol you drink also affects your baby. Sometimes, even a small amount of alcohol may cause birth defects. One serious type of birth defect is known as fetal alcohol syndrome. Talk to your health care provider. He or she can help you learn more.

Pregnant woman in kitchen with glass of red wine.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is not a single birth defect. Instead, it is a group of problems that include:

  • A smaller head than normal

  • Certain facial features. (These may go away later in life)

  • Delayed growth, both before and after birth

  • Slow mental growth or mental retardation

  • A short attention span

  • Behavior problems

Older children with fetal alcohol syndrome may struggle in school. They may not relate well to others and they may often get in trouble. Sometimes, they may have a hard time knowing right from wrong.

What Causes It?

When you drink, your baby drinks too. But alcohol stays in your baby's body longer than in yours. As a result, it may damage your baby's brain. This can happen at any time during your pregnancy. But it's most likely to occur in the first 3 months.

How You Can Help Prevent It

You may not know you’re pregnant right away. A pregnancy test can tell you 2 weeks after conception. You had no way of knowing. If you’re thinking about becoming pregnant, it's best not to drink at all. Once you know you're pregnant, stop drinking right away.

If You Need Help

If you have a problem with alcohol, talk to your health care provider. He or she can help you get treatment. Or, contact a group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. They can offer guidance and support.

Resources

Online Medical Reviewer: Karam-Hage, Maher, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Pienkowski, Dyanne H, MA, MFT
Date Last Reviewed: 7/28/2011
© 2000-2014 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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