If you are pregnant, you should take extra care not to drink during your pregnancy as heavy use of alcohol has long been associated with birth defects and behavioral problems in infants. In the past physicians believed that drinking up to one ounce of alcohol a day would not be dangerous to the developing fetus. Some doctors even advised their patients to relax with a drink now and then. However, recent findings suggest that alcohol is not as safe as has been believed. In fact, it may be one of the more dangerous drugs for a pregnant mother and her child.

When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol flows easily through the placenta to the fetus. However, since the child's liver is not yet developed enough to break down the alcohol, it remains in the child's system much longer than in the mother's. And not only is the fetus physically incapable of dealing with an occasional cocktail, but also frequent drinking can cause health and behavioral problems that will follow the child through the rest of his or her life.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a set of identifiable birth defects caused by the use of alcohol during pregnancy. Studies indicate that FAS may occur in as many as one or two every 1,000 live births. FAS is characterized by a cluster of congenital birth defects that include the following:
  • prenatal and postnatal growth deficiency;
  • a particular pattern of facial malformations, including a small head circumference, flattened midface, sunken nasal bridge, and a flattened and elongated philtrum (the groove between the nose and the upper lip);
  • central nervous system dysfunction; and
  • varying degrees of major organ system malformations.
Behavioral changes associated with FAS include restlessness and irritability, often accompanied by convulsive movements, tremors, and problems in sleeping. A reduction in normal infant response to movement, touch, light, and sound have been reported; and mild to moderate retardation is a frequent outcome.

Alcohol's effects on the unborn are dose-related: The more alcohol the mother consumes, the greater her chances of bearing a child with physical defects or mental retardation. FAS is most likely to occur in the children of heavy drinkers--those who have five or more drinks per day. And yet, women who have two or four drinks a day also risk bearing children with physical and behavioral problems. Even binge drinking--the occasional consumption of large amounts of liquor--has been found to damage the growing fetus. And, as the Surgeon General has recently concluded, drinking even one or two drinks a week increases the possibility of stillbirth and miscarriage.

At this point, you may feel uncertain about how to approach drinking during pregnancy. There is much we have yet to learn about this problem, including the risks of small amounts of alcohol and the degree to which risk is compounded by such other factors as nicotine use and poor nutrition. Until all the facts are in, however, it makes sense to follow the U.S. Surgeon General's written policy that the safest choice is not to drink at all during pregnancy or if you are planning or anticipating pregnancy. In addition, women who breast-feed their babies should continue abstaining from alcohol until their children are weaned. Alcohol poses the greatest danger during the first three months of pregnancy. Unfortunately, this is also the period during which many women are unaware that they are pregnant. If you are planning a child, do not drink. If you discover that you are pregnant, do not simply reduce your drinking—stop completely! Also be aware of the alcohol content of many other substances and over-the-counter medications.