If a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy, she risks damaging her baby. Sometimes this can result in mental and physical problems in the baby, called foetal alcohol syndrome.
This can occur because alcohol in the mother's blood passes to her baby through the placenta.
The baby can't process alcohol as well as the mother can, which means it can damage cells in their brain, spinal cord and other parts of their body, and disrupt their development in the womb.
This can result in the loss of the pregnancy. Babies that survive may be left with the lifelong problems described below.
Foetal alcohol syndrome is a type of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), the name for all the various problems that can affect children if their mother drinks alcohol in pregnancy.
Symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome
A baby exposed to alcohol in the womb may have:
- a head that's smaller than average
- poor growth – they may be smaller than average at birth, grow slowly as they get older, and be shorter than average as an adult
- distinctive facial features – such as small eyes, a thin upper lip, and a smooth area between the nose and upper lip, though these may become less noticeable with age
- movement and co-ordination problems, known as cerebral palsy
- learning difficulties – such as problems with thinking, speech, social skills, timekeeping, maths or memory
- mood, attention or behavioural problems – such as autism-like behaviour or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- problems with the liver, kidneys, heart or other organs
- hearing and vision problems
These problems are permanent, though early treatment and support can help limit their impact on an affected child's life.
What to do if you think your child has foetal alcohol syndrome
Speak to your GP or health visitor if you have any concerns about your child's development or think they could have foetal alcohol syndrome.
If the condition isn't diagnosed early on and a child doesn't receive appropriate support, they're more likely to experience challenges associated with the condition.
For example, they may get into trouble at school, have difficulties with learning, misuse drugs or alcohol, develop mental health problems, and find it difficult to get a job and live independently as an adult.
Your doctor or health visitor will need to know if your child was exposed to alcohol during pregnancy to make a diagnosis of foetal alcohol syndrome.
Your child may be referred to a specialist team for an assessment if there's a possibility they have the condition.
This usually involves a physical examination and blood tests to rule out genetic conditions that have similar symptoms to foetal alcohol syndrome.
Treatment and support for foetal alcohol syndrome
There is no particular treatment for foetal alcohol syndrome, and the damage to the child's brain and organs can't be reversed. But an early diagnosis and support can make a big difference.
Once the condition has been diagnosed, a team of healthcare professionals can assess the needs of the affected person and offer appropriate educational and behavioural strategies to meet these needs.
You may also find it helpful to contact a support group for people with foetal alcohol syndrome. These can be a good source of advice, and they may be able to connect you with other people in a similar situation.
There is a UK support group called NOFAS-UK. You might also want to ask your care team if they know of any local groups in your area.
Preventing foetal alcohol syndrome
Foetal alcohol syndrome is completely avoidable if you don't drink alcohol while you're pregnant.
The risk is higher the more you drink, although there's no proven "safe" level of alcohol in pregnancy. Not drinking at all is the safest approach.
If you're pregnant and struggling with an alcohol problem, talk to your midwife, doctor or pharmacist.
It's never too late to stop drinking: stopping at any point during pregnancy can help reduce the risk of problems in your baby.
Confidential help and support is also available from:
- Drinkline – the national alcohol helpline; if you're worried about your own or someone else's drinking, call this free helpline on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm)
- Addaction – a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals, families and communities manage the effects of alcohol and drug misuse
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – a free self-help group; its "12-step" programme involves getting sober with the help of regular support groups
- NOFAS-UK helpline on 020 8458 5951
- the FASD Trust helpline on 01608 811 599
Page last reviewed: 10 January 2017
Next review due: 10 January 2020