Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder
If you drink (beer, wine, coolers, liquor) while you are pregnant, the alcohol will pass through your bloodstream to your baby. Drinking while pregnant can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a serious condition that affects a child for life. Children with FASD have problems with development, learning, behaviour and social skills. It can also potentially cause physical deformities.
Is there a safe amount of alcohol to consume while pregnant?
We don’t know, so it’s best not to drink any alcohol while you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
What we do know is that the more alcohol you drink, the more damage may be done to your baby. Binge drinking – having 5 or more alcoholic drinks at a time – is very dangerous for an unborn baby.
How can I prevent FASD?
If you are thinking about getting pregnant or are already pregnant, it’s best to stop drinking alcohol right away. There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy. Every time you choose not to drink, you’re helping your baby.
If you are finding it hard to stop drinking, or already have a child with FASD, you should get help before getting pregnant again. Some communities have support programs where women help other women stop drinking. Your doctor, local FASD support group or local clinic can help you find a program that is right for you.
Although there is no known link between a father’s consumption of alcohol and FASD, fathers can support their partners by not drinking during her pregnancy.
If you don’t use birth control but you are having sex and drinking alcohol, you might get pregnant and expose your baby to alcohol before knowing you are pregnant. Always use contraception.
What happens to babies whose mothers drink during pregnancy?
Babies exposed to alcohol before they are born may:
- develop permanent brain damage,
- be smaller than other babies,
- have slight differences in their faces, such as small or narrow eyes, and a thin or flat upper lip,
- be fussy and find it hard to settle, and
- have problems sleeping.
Babies exposed to large amounts of alcohol before birth may go through withdrawal during the first few weeks of life. This withdrawal often starts before babies leave the hospital.
Symptoms of withdrawal include:
- extreme fussiness,
- tremors or shaking,
- feeding problems, and
These babies may also have problems with their heart rate, breathing or digestion.
Does FASD go away?
FASD lasts a lifetime, but the symptoms may change as your child gets older.
Toddlers with FASD may be:
- unable to follow simple instructions,
- much too friendly, even to strangers, and
- delayed in their development.
School-aged children with FASD may:
- have learning difficulties, including problems reading,
- have a hard time paying attention,
- struggle with behaviour problems in the classroom, and
- fall behind in school and have low self-esteem.
Teenagers or adults with FASD may:
- have mental health problems,
- show inappropriate sexual behaviours,
- have bad experiences in school,
- get into trouble with the law, and
- abuse drugs or alcohol.
What should I do if I think my child has FASD?
Acting early is important to reduce the chances that children with FASD will have more serious problems when they get older. Provinces and territories have resources for identifying children with FASD. If you think your child has FASD, talk to your doctor about what should be done. The doctor is there to help you and your child, not judge you.
To find out if your child has FASD, a doctor will ask:
- if you drank during pregnancy and how much,
- about your child’s behaviour,
- how your child is doing in school, and
- if your child has trouble learning.
Not all children exposed to alcohol before being born will have severe FASD. But they may still have problems.
Children with “partial” FASD or other alcohol-related disorders will also need support at home and school. They will do best with an education program that is tailored to their needs.
More information from the CPS:
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
- Fetus and Newborn Committee
- First Nations, Inuit and Métis Health Committee
Last Updated: September 2017