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Alcohol-related birth defects – What are they?

Cindy Beckett, Ph.D., R.N.C.-O.B., L.C.C.E

Even though alcohol use is discouraged during pregnancy, there are an increasing number of children born with alcohol-related birth defects. Even one drink can cause permanent damage to the developing fetus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report in 2010 that reported one in eight pregnant women consumed at least one drink during her pregnancy.

Unfortunately, there are women who are planning to get pregnant, or who know they are pregnant and continue to drink. The CDC reports that although the majority of pregnant women do choose to stop drinking alcohol during pregnancy, there has been a 31-percent increase in drinking by pregnant women in the U.S. since the 1990s. In order for these numbers to drop, partners, friends and family members need to encourage women not to drink alcohol while they are pregnant. There is no safe amount of alcohol and no safe time to drink alcohol during a pregnancy.

It is estimated between 1,300 and 8,000 babies are born each year in the U.S. with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Alcohol exposure during the first three to eight weeks of pregnancy is associated with serious birth defects to the baby’s brain, heart, eyes, ears, bones and joints. Drinking after eight weeks and up to the time of delivery can cause further damage to the brain and developing organs to complex learning and social/behavioral problems. If the child does not have the classic facial abnormalities, early identification of these conditions in children may be difficult.

Developmental and/or behavioral problems may not be fully identified until the child is older. Some of these include developmental delays, hyperactivity, difficulty in learning, Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity and low IQ (the average intelligence score is 65 for an adult). Other conditions may include mental health problems, disrupted school experiences, trouble with the law, confinement (time in jail), inappropriate sexual behavior, alcohol/drug problems, independence issues, and trouble obtaining and holding employment. 

Community Resources

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Northern Arizona (FASDNA) is a resource center that provides community education and a support group for families raising a child or children with FASD. If you would like more information on the effects of alcohol use during pregnancy contact your healthcare provider or contact Cindy Beckett, at 928 773-2307 or by email at

Cindy Beckett, Ph.D., R.N.C.-O.B., L.C.C.E, is the director of Pediatric/Perinatal Services and Evidence-Based Practice at Flagstaff Medical Center. She is the co-chair of the Arizona State Task Force for the Prevention of Prenatal Exposure to Alcohol and Other Drugs, the Arizona co-coordinator for FASD Prevention, and co-facilitator for FASDNA.