Nobody knows how much drinking can harm a baby. So it’s safest not to drink at all during pregnancy. Here’s why:

  • even small amounts of alcohol (such as one or two drinks) daily or a few times a week might affect the baby
  • the harm can happen any time in the first, second, or third trimester of pregnancy
  • even one heavy drinking session can cause harm at any point during a woman’s pregnancy.
Drinking causes different problems depending on the stage of a woman’s pregnancy. Alcohol causes different effects depending stage of the unborn baby’s development. Any time a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol can affect whatever is developing in the unborn baby at the time. You can find out more from Motherisk.

The effects of drinking are different for every woman and her baby

She can’t compare herself to her friends. Some women and their babies will be affected more than others. Nobody knows why for sure. But eating habits, living conditions, and using other drugs (including cigarettes) all play a part.

However, the most harm is caused by regular heavy drinking and by frequent binge drinking. If a woman drinks regularly or binges regularly during pregnancy, the following things can happen:

  • problems during pregnancy.
    This includes miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery.

  • problems when the baby is born.
    The baby could go into withdrawal when it’s born. Withdrawal is like a big hangover. The effects are trembling, being very cranky, and having no appetite. The baby could even have a seizure (or a fit).

  • problems as the baby grows.
    This is called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
FASD is not an issue of race or culture. Aboriginal communities may have serious concerns about FASD, but this is not because of racial or cultural characteristics. FASD is one sign of the many issues faced by Aboriginal people after generations of loss of culture and experiences of extreme trauma. FASD is a concern for all cultures and for all high risk groups, regardless of their race or background. The social background and health of mothers both contribute to FASD.

The effects of FASD can be heightened or made worse by:

  • mental health problems
  • social isolation
  • experiences of trauma or abuse
  • lower education levels
  • living in poverty
  • lack of good food
  • a poor developmental environment for children
  • lack of access to prenatal and postnatal care and services for women

Unfortunately, many women in our communities face difficult lives that include a lot of these factors. But if service providers can support pregnant women with any of these issues, the effects of alcohol use during pregnancy will be lessened to some degree.

FASD covers a range of effects
These effects can include physical, mental, behavioural, and learning disabilities. And they can last for life. There are differing degrees of effects that can happen. It can be a bit confusing. But here are some of the terms that you might hear:

  1. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) with confirmed maternal alcohol exposure. This means that the mother (or someone very close to her) can confirm that she drank alcohol during her pregnancy. A child with this diagnosis will have characteristic facial features, be slow to grow and develop, and will have certain types of brain damage.
  2. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) without confirmed maternal alcohol exposure. A child has all of the signs of FAS even though the mother is not able to confirm that she drank alcohol during her pregnancy. This diagnosis often (but not always) happens with children who are in the adoption or foster care system.
  3. Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS). A child would have some of the facial characteristics plus either slow growth OR some of the signs of brain damage PLUS the mother (or someone very close to her) can confirm that she drank alcohol during her pregnancy.
  4. Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND). A child does not have any of the facial characteristics of FAS. But they have some behavioural and learning difficulties that can’t be explained any other way. They might also have poor fine motor skills, hearing loss, poor gait, and poor eye-hand coordination. These are the children who have an “invisible disability”.

Here is a quote from a service provider in our community about the importance of understanding the different types of FASD:

Audio Transcription:

“It’s really important to know the type of FASD the child has. Most people just say ‘this child has FASD’. There’s not enough real diagnosis going on in our community.”

Remember: Only a doctor and a diagnostic team can diagnose any degree or type of FASD.

FASD is often an invisible disability
This is because many children (and adults) whose mothers drank during pregnancy don’t always show any physical characteristics of FASD. Early identification is crucial to understanding and helping children who may be affected by any degree of FASD. But because so many children with FASD don’t have physical characteristics, this means that many of them go undetected and undiagnosed. What we can see are the behaviours of children who are FASD affected. Even if children don’t have a diagnosis of FASD, we can develop helpful strategies if a child’s behavioral issues are identified and understood as signs of FASD.

For more information about this topic, go to the Strategies section of this site, here.