cover bar Title: Cause and Defect: Drinking, Drugs and Pregnancy
Author: Lisa Turney
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: January 2011
Catalog Number: 140

..Now & Then

We really have come a long way -- in some ways.

Two thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks suspected that drinking could cause problems during pregnancy, although they didn't know why.

Today, science knows how and why alcohol causes problems, but we still haven't done enough to spread the word about the risks of drinking during pregnancy.

That's the reason that warning labels from the U.S. Surgeon General have popped up on containers for beer, wine and liquor lately, and that's the reason we've put together this pamphlet.

In it, we plan to look under the labels at the real risks of drinking during pregnancy and the tragedy of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. We'll also consider the effects of other drugs during pregnancy and discuss how problems get started -- and how they can be avoided.

We'll even include some simple steps for reducing the risk of problems in your pregnancy.

Because even though it may take centuries to make us aware of a problem, it doesn't have to take that long for us to do something about it.

..What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the name given to a set of birth defects triggered by alcohol use during pregnancy. Although a link had been suspected since ancient times, FAS wasn't formally recognized until 1973.

Today, two of every 1,000 U.S. newborns have FAS or its counterpart, Fetal Drug Syndrome up from one in 1,000 just 20 years ago.

And for every infant born with the full-blown symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, 10 others suffer less severe alcohol-related problems.

..Which birth defects are caused by drinking?

Four main types of birth defects are linked to drinking, including:

  • Mental Retardation. Alcohol is the leading cause of mental retardation in the United States today.
  • Impaired Growth. Babies born to drinking mothers are physically smaller than the babies of non-drinkers. Most never "catch up" as they grow older.
  • Facial Malformations. FAS babies often have smaller-than-normal head size, misshapen eyes, and a flattened nose and face.
  • Organ Defects. Alcohol can disrupt organ formation and growth, causing defects in the heart, kidneys, muscles, joints, and sex organs.

Less severe problems are known as "Fetal Alcohol Effects" (FAE). They're generally milder forms of the problems triggered by FAS, but are just as preventable.

FAS symptoms occur most often in children born to women who average five or more drinks a day. Still, even a drink or two several times a week can lead to problems.

..How does drinking cause birth defects?

The same way a bomb causes a hole in the ground. When a person drinks, alcohol races through the bloodstream to all parts of the body. . When a person drinks, alcohol races through the bloodstream to all parts of the body. If the person is a woman and the woman is pregnant, it filters across the placenta and enters the bloodstream of the fetus.

That's where problems begin.

Because the fetal liver is only partially developed, it isn't able to metabolize and eliminate alcohol on its own.

That's why drinking even small amounts can cause big problems during pregnancy because mom's cocktail or wine cooler stays in the baby's body longer and in higher (and more harmful) concentrations.

Exactly what happens next isn't fully understood. Researchers think that problems are linked to faulty cell development, since alcohol interferes with production of proteins that serve as building blocks for cells and nerves.

..Is one stage of pregnancy more critical than others?

They're all important, but most experts agree that the most critical period occurs during the first three months of pregnancy. That's when the brain, central nervous system, and other internal organ systems begin to develop.

Drinking during months four through six is linked with increased miscarriage, while growth retardation is more likely to follow use during the final three months of pregnancy.

And according to one study, drinking during the last months of pregnancy is also tied to a ten-fold increase in the risk of leukemia during early childhood.

..Is drinking by the father harmful?

Maybe. Because new research is beginning to support the suspicion that a father's drinking may also affect an unborn child.

The how and why of that begins with the fact that long-term, heavy use of alcohol affects people in different ways.

Some women and men seem more susceptible to certain types of alcohol-related damage than others. Certain drinkers, for example, develop liver damage faster than others.

Since FAS is linked to impaired cellular development and since new sperm cells are produced in males throughout life, those men most vulnerable to such damage could pass susceptibility on to their children.

..If I don't drink every day, can I still drink once in a while?

That depends on what you mean by "once in a while." If it means every nine months or so -- before and after pregnancy -- the answer is yes.

Because alcohol really does affect different people in different ways. And that goes for people-to-be, too.

The full set of FAS defects is seen most often in the children of mothers who report heavy drinking throughout their pregnancy.

In fact, research shows that 45 percent of such women bear FAS-affected children while another 20 percent give birth to babies with FAE and other, less severe alcohol-related effects.

Still, just cutting back isn't enough to prevent problems, because a range of problems can follow even limited drinking during pregnancy:

  • One to three drinks a day may slow growth and trigger FAS-like behavioral problems.
  • "Subnormal" IQ scores are linked to as little as three drinks a day.
  • One or two drin ks a week may increase the risk of stillbirth and miscarriage.

Note that the problems we've discussed apply equally to women who "binge" drink during pregnancy. Today, researchers suspect that binge drinking -- which produces sudden, high levels of alcohol in the bloodstream -- can be just as dangerous as regular alcohol use.

And that's especially true if the binge occurs at a critical stage in fetal development.

..So there's no such thing as "safe" drinking during pregnancy?

As much as we might wish there were, there simply isn't a guaranteed "safe" level of alcohol use during pregnancy. That's why all alcohol containers sold in the United States and Canada today carry explicit messages, advising against any use during pregnancy.

Some doctors go even further, warning women who are planning a pregnancy to cut down on drinking three to six months before conception to avoid problems. Others give the same advice to prospective fathers.

Some women still think the warnings apply only to "real" alcohol -- like scotch or vodka. But today we know that what you drink isn't important, but how much and how often is. That's because a 12-ounce beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, or a mixed drink all contain roughly the same amount of pure alcohol -- about half an ounce.

..What can I do to prevent problems?

All kinds of things. Reading this pamphlet is a good start. If you're not pregnant or expecting to be, pass it on to someone you care about who may be planning or expecting a child.

Because even though we're not sure about all the factors that can cause birth defects, alcohol is the leading cause that we know about.

And the problems it causes can be prevented if you just do two simple things:

  • If you're pregnant or think you could be, stop drinking now.
  • If you have a drinking problem, talk to your doctor and get the help that you -- and your baby -- need.

Whatever you need to do, do it now. Because even though a mother's love can seem pretty miraculous in healing a hurt or soothing a scraped knee, sometimes the best love we ever give our kids starts before they're born.

That's the kind of love that really lasts a lifetime.

Now, here's looking at you, kid.

..Sidebar | Double Trouble: Drug Dangers

Alcohol isn't the only drug that can cause problems during pregnancy -- not by a long shot. Experts guess that 15 percent of U.S. women of child-bearing age currently use drugs. And many don't quit until after the first three months of pregnancy, if then.

So-called "Fetal Drug Syndrome" effects can range from behavioral problems to addiction and stillbirth. Damage depends on which drug is used, when. Examples:

  • Crack/Cocaine: Higher risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and growth problems. Newborns may suffer seizures and heart defects, and show signs of neurological damage and addiction.
  • Marijuana: Slow growth, possible miscarriage, excitability or irritability in newborns.
  • Heroin: Addiction and withdrawal. Linked to breathing problems and higher levels of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome ("crib death").
  • AIDS: Women who inject drugs run a higher risk of contracting the virus that causes AIDS and passing it on to their unborn children.

This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
Please call or write for a complete list of available titles, or check us out online at