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Newborn and Infant Care

What are the affects of fetal alchol snydrome

09/19/1999

Question:

Does drinking alchol affect an unborn child?And does smoking pot affect an unborn child and if so what will happen to the baby? The woman I am concerned about is 5 months pregnant. She has been drinking heavily for a month.

Answer:

You are correct to be concerned about the effects on the unborn baby when a pregnant woman drinks alcohol or uses marijuana (pot). I will summarize briefly the risks posed by these substances, starting with alcohol.

Babies whose mothers drink during pregnancy, especially those who drink heavily, may be born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS is a form of birth defect, and is the leading known cause of preventable mental retardation. Fetal alcohol syndrom is characterized by a number of congenital birth defects that include prenatal and postnatal growth deficiency, facial malformations, central nervous system dysfunction, and varying degrees of other major organ system malfunctions.

A milder form of damage caused by alcohol consumption is called Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE); it is characterized by milder or less frequent signs of FAS. The harmful effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol exist on a continuum, ranging from full-blown FAS to mild FAE.

Not all women who drink alcohol during pregnancy have babies with FAS or FAE. Variables affecting outcome include genetics, cigarette smoking, other drug use, nutrition, and time of use during pregnancy.

FAS was first described in the U.S.A. in 1973 and is thought to be the most common preventable cause of mental retardation in the western world. It is characterized by:

Retarded growth Small head size Facial abnormalities Mental retardation

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)in Atlanta, Georgia, the rate of babies born with health problems caused by fetal alcohol syndrome increased sixfold from 1979 to 1993. A total of 2,032 cases were reported among the 9.4 million births over the 15 year period.

The effects of FAS or FAE do NOT go away; they can be helped, but can not be "fixed."

Marijuana use during pregnancy also increases the risks for birth defects in the baby. Doctors advise pregnant women not to use any drugs because they might harm the growing fetus. Marijuana use has been linked to loss of the fetus very early in pregnancy in some animal studies. Some studies in humans have found that babies born to marijuana users were shorter, weighed less, and had smaller head sizes than those born to mothers who did not use the drug. Smaller babies are more likely to develop health problems. Some studies have found effects of marijuana that resemble the features of fetal alcohol syndrome. There are also research findings that show nervous system problems in children of mothers who smoked marijuana.

Researchers are not certain whether a newborn baby`s health problems, if they are caused by marijuana, will continue as the child grows. Preliminary research shows that children born to mothers who used marijuana regularly during pregnancy may have difficulty concentrating.

After birth, if a nursing mother uses marijuana, some of the harmful ingredient in marijuana (THC) is passed to the baby in her breast milk. This is a matter for concern, since the THC in the mother`s milk is much more concentrated than that in the mother`s blood. The use of marijuana by a mother during the first month of breastfeeding can impair the infant`s motor development (control of muscle movement).

Thus, the combination of alcohol and marijuana risk poses significant risks for the unborn fetus of the mother at 5 months gestation. Please encourage your friend to seek help and stop using alcohol and marijuana. She will need support and encouragement to be successful. I will include a website for further information to help you.

Best of luck to you.

Related Resources:

National Organization on FAS

For more information:

Go to the Newborn and Infant Care health topic, where you can:

Response by:

Judy Wright Lott, RNC, NNP, DSN
Associate Professor of Nursing
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati