If a woman drinks alcohol at any time during pregnancy, she risks damaging her baby. The mental and physical problems that can develop in the baby are known as "foetal alcohol syndrome".

Foetal alcohol syndrome, also referred to as fetal alcohol syndrome, is completely avoidable if you don't drink alcohol while you're pregnant.

Experts are still unsure exactly how much alcohol is safe for you to have while pregnant, which is why not drinking at all is the safest approach.

How would alcohol reach the unborn baby?

A baby in the womb gets its nourishment from the mother's bloodstream.

If the mother drinks alcohol, this easily passes from her blood through the placenta to her baby's blood.

A baby's liver is one of the last organs to develop fully and doesn't mature until the later stages of pregnancy. This means that the baby cannot process alcohol as well as the mother can.

What effect does alcohol have on the baby?

Exposure to alcohol can seriously affect the baby's development, particularly the brain and spinal cord. 

Alcohol damages the important cells in the baby's body that are necessary for growth and also disrupts the connection of the nerves in the brain. The damage to the cells by alcohol results in poor growth, smaller body size and a delay in development.

Alcohol is potentially most harmful for the baby in the first three months of pregnancy. At this stage, it is linked to miscarriage and birth abnormalities. However, alcohol can harm a baby at any stage of pregnancy.

Larger amounts of alcohol appear to increase the problems: binge drinking is more harmful than drinking small amounts of alcohol. However, there is no "safe" level of alcohol use during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome?

Drinking alcohol while pregnant has been associated with miscarriagestillbirth, premature labour and problems with the way the baby grows and develops in the womb.

A baby exposed to alcohol in the womb is more prone to illness, physical problems, and learning and behavioural disorders. It may have any of the following problems:

  • poor growth while in the womb and after birth, so the baby is shorter and smaller than average, sometimes with deformed limbs 
  • small head and jaw
  • distinctive facial features, especially:
    - small eyes set far apart
    - a thin upper lip
    - a smooth philtrum (ridge that runs below the nose to the top lip)  
  • cerebral palsy  a problem in the parts of the brain responsible for controlling muscles, which affects movement and co-ordination
  • learning disorders  problems with thinking, speech, social skills and/or memory (for example, finding it difficult to translate thinking into saying, or reading into speaking) 
  • mood, attention or behavioural problems  for example, autistic-like behaviour, ADHD or sleep problems
  • problems with the liver, kidneys, heart or other organs
  • hearing and sight problems
  • epilepsy 
  • a weak immune system

Some children may only develop mild symptoms, while others may be severely affected.

If children with foetal alcohol syndrome are not diagnosed early and given the support they need, they are likely to face a range of issues in later life. Because of their problems, they may misuse drugs and alcohol and become expelled from school, develop mental health problems, and find it difficult to get a job and live independently as adults.

How is foetal alcohol syndrome diagnosed?

Doctors may suspect foetal alcohol syndrome in a baby after it has been born if it has some of the distinctive facial features and hasn't grown fully, and it's thought that the mother drank alcohol during pregnancy.

However, the diagnosis cannot be confirmed until the child shows clear features of delayed development and the mother's alcohol habit has been confirmed.

Doctors do also check for other causes of the child's delayed development, including genetic abnormalities. They will usually carry out a thorough physical examination of the baby to check for physical abnormalities.

Some children who have suffered brain damage from alcohol won't have the classic facial features of foetal alcohol syndrome, but they could still be severely affected. So it's important that children who show some or all of the behavioural and developmental problems described are assessed if it's known that the mother drank alcohol in pregnancy.

What's the outlook for a child with foetal alcohol syndrome?

There is no particular treatment for a child with foetal alcohol syndrome. The brain damage is not reversible, although early assessment and diagnosis does make all the difference to the child's progress in life.

It's important that the child is referred to a team of healthcare professionals who are experienced in assessing and diagnosing foetal alcohol syndrome and who can also advise on the appropriate educational and behavioural strategies for the children. The child will then be better equipped to cope with their physical, behavioural and developmental problems. 

Children with foetal alcohol syndrome do tend to have growth delay. The facial deformities may sometimes be less noticeable as the child ages, but they may be shorter than average and have a much smaller head size.

Where can I go for support?

It's never too late to stop drinking.

If you're pregnant and struggling with an alcohol problem, ask your midwife, doctor or pharmacist for support or advice. They may recommend that you join a rehabilitation programme. Find local alcohol addiction services.

Confidential help and support is also available from local counselling services (contact Drinkline on 0300 123 1110), the FASD Trust or NOFAS.

Read advice on how to cut down on drinking.

Page last reviewed: 21/01/2015

Next review due: 21/01/2017