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You don’t have to be a fall-down drunk for your drinking habits to impact your baby. Even modest drinking can cause problems. Drinking in any amount, whether it be a daily drink or the occasional binge, has been linked to a number of adverse outcomes, including …

  • Higher rates of miscarriage
  • Stillbirth and fetal death
  • Low birth weight
  • Learning disabilities and low IQ
  • Birth defects
  • Labor and delivery problems
  • Abnormal growth and development
  • Behavioral problems

As developmental pediatrician Mark Cohen states, “Physicians and researchers now recognize a whole range of conditions, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, that can occur in children who are exposed to alcohol in utero. The effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and learning disabilities with possible lifelong implications.” (Cohen, 2010) Here’s a closer look at some of the more serious effects:

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is a pervasive developmental disorder (meaning it typically affects all aspects of development) that in many ways can be similar to Downs Syndrome. Kids affected by it show facial deformations and often suffer from significant mental retardation. They also exhibit poor growth and abnormalities in the central nervous system.

Speaking on the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, Cohen states: “The brain problems associated with FAS are manifold. … the damage that alcohol causes to the developing brain results in a constellation of mental and behavioral characteristics … Some children have a generalized cognitive impairment, or mental retardation. Others are not mentally retarded but still have significant learning disorders and other developmental issues, including motor delays, problems with social skills, memory deficits, language problems, and difficulties with the complex set of mental skills – including planning, flexibility, and decision making – that are known as ‘executive functioning.’“ (ibid, p. 31)

FAS affects around 3 in every 1,000 babies. For reasons unknown, certain minority groups seem to be more affected: African American women who drink heavily are 6.7 times more likely to have a child with fetal alcohol syndrome than white women drinking the same amount, and Native American women are at 30-times the risk. (Jersild, 2001)

It’s still unknown precisely what triggers the disorder, but it’s generally tied to heavy drinking during pregnancy, or even the occasional binge of 5 or more drinks in a single setting. The latest research I’ve seen suggests the risks for FAS are greatest early in pregnancy, which is why it’s important for women to either cut back or eliminate alcohol as soon as they learn they are pregnant.

Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAE)
This condition is more subtle than fetal alcohol syndrome, and is used to describe children who avoided the fate of all out retardation but nonetheless have been significantly damaged by alcohol. FAE children tend to exhibit numerous developmental and behavioral problems, though at first glance they may appear just like any other child.

Infant death

Whereas the infant death rate is 8.6 per 1,000 births among women who do not drink during pregnancy, it is 23.5 per 1,000 births among those who have an average of two or more drinks per day. (Jersild, 2001; CDC, National Center for Health Statistics, Linked Birth/Infant Death Data Set, 1991) That’s an almost tripling of the infant death rate, which snatches away many young lives before they’ve even had a chance to start. To put the scope of this tragedy in perspective, among all the registered sex-offenders in this country, one might snatch and murder a child somewhere in the country on average of once every 3 to 6 years, if that. For this we have spent billions on rather dubious laws aimed at protecting children. By comparison, drinking during pregnancy poses a risk tens of thousands of times greater than the community “predators” society worries about. If sex offenders actually were stalking and killing dozens of children a day, we’d consider it a national emergency. Yet this hidden holocaust of alcohol killing infants is taking place with barely a mention.

The more subtle, long-term Effects of Drinking During Pregnancy
Most of the debate over drinking during pregnancy focuses on the risk of fetal birth defects, the most notable being fetal alcohol syndrome. But the risk of birth defects and other pregnancy complications are only one aspect of the equation. Alcohol consumption during pregnancy has also been linked to a number of more subtle problems as a child develops. These may not have the same immediate, eye-catching impact as a birth defect, but they can be serious nonetheless.

Behavioral changes are commonly linked to maternal drinking during pregnancy. A 2011 study by psychiatrist Nancy Day found that teens born to women who averaged more than one drink a week during pregnancy were twice as likely as those born to nondrinkers to have conduct disorder, a condition characterized by negative behaviors such as theft, deceit or violence. Another study in 2009 tied a single incident of binge drinking during pregnancy to hyperactivity and attention problems in children. (Wenner-Moyer, 2013)

There’s also reason to be concerned that alcohol consumption during pregnancy can predispose a child towards drinking later in life, since whatever the mother consumes during pregnancy or while nursing goes into the repertoire of flavors a baby grows familiar with. In other words, regular drinking during pregnancy (even in light to moderate amounts) could give your child a taste for alcohol, just as drinking carrot juice will give your child a fondness for carrots. This may be one of the ways in which alcoholism gets passed down from generation to generation.

Though I know of no studies that have attempted to explore this issue (it would be a difficult thing to explore in babies) there is indirect evidence to suggest it plays a role. For example, one study found that among those with a family history of alcoholism, simply the flavor of alcohol was enough to cause a positive reaction in the brain, triggering a release of dopamine. (Oberlin et al., 2013) Since we know for a fact that what mother takes in during pregnancy predisposes her baby towards those same foods, drinks, or flavors, any amount of regular drinking may prime a baby’s brain so that when they encounter alcohol in the real world later on, they are more drawn to it than children of non-drinkers would be.


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