Fetal alcohol syndrome refers to a cluster of physical, mental, and growth defects that may happen to a baby when a mother drinks alcohol while she is pregnant. Not all children of women who drink during pregnancy are affected by fetal alcohol syndrome. Fetal alcohol syndrome describes a range of problems that may affect children with varying degrees of severity. Common symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome include problems with growth both before and after birth, poor muscle tone, difficulties with coordination, brain abnormalities, and heart defects. Fetal alcohol syndrome is also associated with smaller-than-usual head sizes, and characteristic facial features. Children with fetal alcohol syndrome often experience learning problems or mental retardation, as well as social and behavioral problems.

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What Should You Know?

Fetal alcohol syndrome can have devastating consequences, but can be entirely prevented by avoiding drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol passes quickly from the mother's bloodstream, across the placenta to the unborn baby. The fetus metabolizes alcohol more slowly than an adult, so the developing child experiences higher blood alcohol levels than the mother. This hinders the flow of oxygen and nutrition to the baby's brain.

Doctors have not determined whether there is an amount of alcohol that may be consumed safely during pregnancy. Drinking greater amounts of alcohol, however, places your baby at greater risk. The developing fetus is especially vulnerable during the first trimester while the facial features, heart, bones, and central nervous system are still forming.

In addition to causing fetal alcohol syndrome, using or abusing alcohol during pregnancy may result in miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and infant death.

Before Pregnancy:

If you are planning to conceive, or think you may be pregnant, do not drink alcohol. The baby undergoes crucial developmental stages during the first weeks of pregnancy, before many women even realize they are pregnant.

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Approximately 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, so use birth control diligently. If you are sexually active and choose not to use birth control, it's safest to forgo alcohol during your childbearing years.

If you struggle with alcohol addicition, seek help before getting pregnant.

During Pregnancy:

Once you discover you're pregnant, stop drinking if you haven't already. Although the fetus may be harmed by alcohol consumption during the earliest weeks of pregnancy, eliminating drinking at any point during your pregnancy will benefit your baby.

If you are pregnant and can't stop drinking alcohol, get help right away. The best chance for your developing child is for you to enter a rehabilitation program and receive regular medical care throughout your pregnancy.

Do not be afraid to tell your doctor if you are struggling with alcoholism during your pregnancy. Help is available. If you have already had a child, and drank heavily during the pregnancy, let your doctor know. Early diagnosis and treatment will give your child the best chance of leading a healthy life.