The Effects of Alcohol on the Fetus

pregnancy and alcohol

Alcohol has the capabilities to affect the bodily systems in different ways, often depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, as well as frequency. Addiction to alcohol can cause kidney failure and other adverse health effects. A pregnant woman who consumes alcohol can negatively affect the most pertinent stages of fetal development.

Alcohol is considered a teratogen agent, which means it will impact the development of the embryo or fetus inside a pregnant woman. Depending on the amount consumed, as well as the frequency of consumption, various abnormalities or birth defects could develop, causing harm to the baby and make the environment it is growing in toxic.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

 If you or someone you know knows that they are pregnant, having any amount of alcohol can significantly impact the baby. Consuming any amount of alcohol, including beer, wine, and liquor, can have serious consequences for your baby. Consumption of alcohol can cause problems for the baby at any point in the pregnancy.

The placenta will form inside your womb, which will provide nourishment to the baby through the umbilical cord. Anything consumed by the parent will go through the placenta and through the umbilical cord, including alcohol. This is why any amount of alcohol is unsafe for the development of an unborn child.

The Embryonic Stage

The embryonic stage is the first stage of development and is often considered the most important. After fertilization of the egg has occurred, the zygote has now entered the embryonic stage. At this point, the zygote, or fertilized egg, may or may not have attached to the wall of the uterus. A mother consuming alcohol during this period could prevent the zygote from implanting. This stage will only last for a mere eight weeks, but it is extremely important. During the embryonic stage, the body blueprints are laid out. These blueprints will determine how bodily functions will be carried out, as well as the foundations of organs.

The third week of gestation is an especially important time period for development. This is when the precursors for cardiac development will be laid out. By the fourth week of gestation, the heart begins to beat. This means that this week or so time frame experiences rapid growth. Consumption of alcohol during this phase may cause the blueprints to misfire and result in a birth defect. A child born with these defects may experience valve defects, such as valve deformations, or atrial abnormalities.

The third week of gestation is also when the central nervous system comes to the forefront and with it, the eyes. Unfortunately, often more times than not, when alcohol is consumed the eyes will be the first tissues affected of the central nervous system. The eyes will continue to be vulnerable, specifically between the third and fifth weeks, and will display adverse health effects from now until when alcohol consumption has ceased completely. Babies that are born with these health defects often display underdevelopment of their eyes.

The last few weeks of the embryonic stage are when the brain really starts to develop. This when the baby’s brain will be most sensitive to alcohol. The hemispheres of the baby’s brain will start to divide and may have difficulty responding to each other. White matter, which is responsible for this communication between cells, will start or continue to deplete.

Brain Damage

Advancements in neuroimaging have allowed researchers to be able to see just how alcohol affects prenatal brain development. Alcohol exposure caused a significant decrease in white matter, as well as overall communication between the brain and the cells.

The corpus callosum, which is a thick band of nerve fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain, notably showed the most damage. The shape of the corpus callosum was affected, as well as those being exposed to alcohol having a much smaller corpus callosum. This would not only affect the brain to cell communication but also limit the brain’s future growth.

The Fetal Stage 

The fetal stage is considered to encompass the entire gestation period after the first eight weeks. Although the fetus is not as sensitive to alcohol as the embryo, it is important to note that it can still be affected. During the fetal stage, the brain and central nervous system go through a very significant growth spurt. This is the time when a lot of the baby’s neurons will be created. This can significantly affect the brain, as well as limit cellular communication which will limit growth in other areas.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome encompasses a wide range of different symptoms and effects caused by alcohol. The severity varies, but the damage that has been done and defects that have developed are not able to be reversed. Not only may children with fetal alcohol syndrome experience physical defects, but they may also suffer from social and behavioral problems as well.

Your Baby Will Have An Increased Risk Of:

  • Your baby could be born before thirty-seven weeks, or prematurely. Babies that are not a full term pregnancy could experiences severe health problems at birth, as well as later on in life.
  • Your baby could experience central nervous system damage or brain damage. This could affect the baby’s growth, development, and may leave them with a disability.
  • Your baby could be born with birth defects due to the consumption of alcohol. These defects could include heart or hearing problems and could affect how your child will develop or their overall health.
  • Your baby could be stillborn. When a baby dies in the womb after twenty weeks, it is considered stillborn. This happens when alcohol consumption causes your body to abort the baby.
  • Your child could develop a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. These disorders are in relation to fetal alcohol syndrome. Children experiencing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FASDs, may experience trouble learning, communicating, delays in developmental milestones, and intellectual disabilities.

How Can You Keep Your Baby Safe From Alcohol?

The only way to keep your baby safe from alcohol is to not consume any alcohol during your pregnancy. If you are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant and are addicted to alcohol, it is best to seek help immediately to help limit any adverse health effects that could occur to your unborn baby. The Arizona Addiction Recovery Center can help you or a loved one struggling with alcohol addiction make the first step towards sobriety.