Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: the dangers of drinking while pregnant

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) can cause a lifetime of devastating problems for children whose mothers drank significant amounts of alcohol while pregnant. FASD is sadly being revealed as a very serious and prevalent issue in Australia, largely due to our deeply entrenched drinking culture.

FASD doesn’t just affect certain groups of people – it is not a ‘problem for the disadvantaged,’ for example. According to one Australian paediatrician, the problem lies predominantly in Australia’s white middle-class. And, the extent of the problem is still unknown. Reports vary drastically, from one in every 100 children (in the UK) to as high as one in five in a study from Fitzroy Valley, Western Australia. Currently, there are no reliable estimates of the prevalence of FASD in the Australian population available.

Brain damage, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), learning issues, balance problems, lack of inhibition and behavioural problems are just some of the effects of fetal alcohol exposure. In fact, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is now regarded as ‘the’ driver for ADHD.

In addition to the above problems, children with FASD may present with other problems:

  • liver damage
  • epilepsy
  • kidney and heart defects
  • hearing and ear problems
  • teeth, mouth and facial problems
  • a weakened immune system

Understanding alcohol and pregnancy

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it crosses directly through the placenta into the unborn child’s bloodstream – in almost the same concentration as the mother. An unborn child’s liver cannot process alcohol and must rely on the mother’s liver to do the job. While the mother has alcohol in her system, the blood she passes onto her child lacks the oxygen and nutrients required for proper brain function and development. Therefore, alcohol can leave the baby undernourished, affect the development of the nervous system and brain, and damage brain cells. White matter, the part of the brain responsible for processing information, is sensitive to alcohol and may be damaged through the mother’s drinking.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome - Sage Institute of Child Care

Alcohol can also alter the appearance of the child’s face, with typical FASD facial features resulting. Affected children present with small eyes, a low nasal bridge, upturned nose, a smooth philtrum – that area between the nose and top lip, and narrow lips. Minor ear abnormalities (known as railroad track ears) can also be seen, along with flat cheeks, and small fissures or lines on either side of the eyes.


Diagnosing FAD (or FASD) is not straightforward. First, the doctor must ask the mother if she drank while pregnant – a question that can be potentially uncomfortable and problematic for both parties. Other physical and health symptoms in the child that could have been caused by a myriad of reasons need to be ruled out. Finally, the child needs to undergo a variety of brain functions assessments by a team of trained professionals. All these findings need to then be aligned with recognised diagnostic criteria before a proper diagnosis can be made.

How much is too much?

A woman need not be an alcoholic to damage her unborn child through drinking. We still don’t know how much alcohol is required before it is dangerous for the unborn child, but it could be low if consumed at critical times during fetal development. Various factors also contribute to the risk with alcohol to the mother-to-be, such as absorption rate, metabolism, current medications, physical health and diet, and so on.

“The healthiest option is not to drink alcohol while pregnant.”

Until we can ascertain a safe amount of alcohol for pregnant women, our National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines recommend that no alcohol should be consumed while pregnant.

In addition, scientists have concluded that week six to nine is the time where the baby’s is most susceptible to FASD. However, an unborn child may be negatively affected by alcohol at any time during the pregnancy, so abstinence is recommended.

But what if you were innocently enjoying a few drinks, not knowing that you were pregnant, or, thinking that it would be fine? Providing you were drinking no more than two to three units a day (approximately one glass of wine) it should be OK. If you have any concerns, it’s best to talk to your doctor or midwife immediately.

As more news of this syndrome continues to appear in the media, the message is clear: alcohol causes huge problems for unborn children. It’s no secret, either, that Australians drink too much. We are one of the biggest drinking nations in the world, with binge drinking numbers continuing to increase. Research indicates that over 50% of pregnant women drink, while many women have unplanned pregnancies. This leads the door open for potential FASD problems.

The video clip below, from a recent ABC Four Corners program entitled “Hidden Harm” illustrates the sad reality for families with children diagnosed with FASD.

Source: ABC TV

Let’s look at drinking while pregnant another way:

  • Binge drink while pregnant – you seriously risk harming your child with FASD.
  • Drink in conservative amounts while pregnant – you will minimise, but not exclude the chance of causing damage to your unborn child.
  • Don’t drink at all while pregnant – your child cannot develop FASD.

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Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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