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Pregnancy and Alcohol – risks and effects on the developing baby

fetal; foetal; alcohol; retardation; mental; abuse; drug; pregnancy; FAS; ARDD; fetal alcohol syndrome; development; baby; placenta; ARND; related; neurodeveolmental;


If you are pregnant or planning to get pregnant, no alcohol is the safest choice.


Can alcohol affect a baby during pregnancy?

Yes. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm a baby during pregnancy

  • Alcohol crosses the placenta to the developing baby
  • The alcohol will reach the developing baby very quickly and its blood alcohol level will be the same as yours
  • Alcohol can cause damage to a developing baby at any stage during the pregnancy
  • It  can affect the baby’s body and in particular the baby’s brain development
  • The damage caused by alcohol in pregnancy  is for life and may not be seen at birth

So if you’re planning a pregnancy or pregnant - the safest option is to avoid alcohol

How can alcohol affect a developing baby?

The development of the baby’s cells and organs can be affected differently by alcohol at different stages during pregnancy – so it’s hard to predict the outcome

  • Some babies exposed to high levels of alcohol will die before they are born

The effects of alcohol on the unborn baby is different depending on many different factors

  • Some of these factors include when in the pregnancy alcohol was consumed, how much and how often
  • Some other factors include the genetics of the baby and the mother as well as

Not all babies exposed to alcohol during pregnancy will be effected in the same way or to the same degree

Alcohol can affect the way the baby develops at any stage of the pregnancy and may cause  lifelong disabilitiescalled Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)?

FASD is the most common preventable cause of birth defects and brain damage in unborn children.

  • FASD can cause a range of different problems from mild to very severe  – most of these problems will not be noticed at birth and may not be obvious until the child is much older
  • Most individuals with FASD will look quite normal

Drinking alcohol in the first three months (first trimester) of the pregnancy is particularly sensitive. Heavy or binge drinking during this time can cause babies to be born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

  • FAS is just one of the different types of disorders caused by alcohol exposure during pregnancy
  • Babies born with FAS will have a number of physical changes to their head and face as well as their brain Sometimes these changes are not easy to notice just by looking at them

Remember that most babies who are affected by alcohol will not have all the signs of FAS.

What are some of the problems caused by FASD?

The effects caused by alcohol use in pregnancy are different for each child but could include:

  • Brain damage
  • Birth defects
  • Social and behaviour problems
  • Developmental delay
  • Low IQ
  • Poor growth

These effects are life-long and are usually not noticed at birth

Is there a cure?

No there is no cure for FASD

However, some children are only mildly effected and with the right support will have minimal problems as they grow up.

Is there a safe time to drink alcohol in pregnancy?

No. There is no safe time in pregnancy to drink alcohol.

The baby’s brain develops the whole way through pregnancy and can be effected by alcohol at any stage of its development.

Stopping drinking alcohol at any time during pregnancy improves the outlook for a baby's brain development

Is there a safe amount of alcohol in pregnancy?

No. There is no safe amount of alcohol to drink in pregnancy.

  • Some babies can even be effected by a little bit of alcohol (1 or 2 standard drinks once a week)
  • Small occasional alcohol use in pregnancy = low risk to the developing baby
  • Heavy frequent alcohol use in pregnancy = high risk to the developing baby
  • No alcohol = no risk to the developing baby

So the safest choice is not to drink any alcohol at all during pregnancy or if there is a chance you may become pregnant.

Is there a safe type of alcohol in pregnancy?

No. There is no safe type of alcohol during pregnancy.

Beer, wine and spirits all contain alcohol.

What if I drank alcohol before I knew I was pregnant?

Often pregnancy is unplanned and women drink alcohol before they knew they were pregnant.

  • Small amounts of alcohol consumed before you are aware of your pregnancy carries a low risk.
  • Heavy or binge drinking carries a higher risk for the baby.
  • To reduce the chance of significant risk to the baby, it’s important  to stop drinking alcohol as soon as you find out you are pregnant.

Remember that stopping alcohol use at any stage of the pregnancy will increase your chances of having a healthier baby.

How would I know if my baby has been affected by alcohol?

Sometimes, if a lot of alcohol has been used in the pregnancy there are noticeable differences in the baby that can be seen such as a small head or unusual facial features (FAS). But usually it’s not possible to tell that they have FASD  just by looking at a child because they look just like other babies and children

If you consumed alcohol during pregnancy and are concerned about your child you could contact NOFASD. 

How do I say “no thanks” to alcohol if I am pregnant?

If you’re OK for people to know you’re pregnant you can say:

  • “no thanks, not while I’m pregnant”
  • “no thanks, when I drink so does my baby”

If you’re not OK for people to know you’re pregnant you can say:

  • “no thanks, I’m on a health kick”
  • “no thanks, I’m trying to cut down”
  • “no thanks, I’m on medication”

Contact numbers and links 

Alcohol and Drug Information Service – 24 hour counselling ph. 1300 13 13 40.

National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (NOFASD) ph. 1300 306 238

Telethon Institute of Child Health Research 

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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