Alcohol and Pregnancy
Fetus or Foetus
The word 'fetus' is from Latin origins and meant offspring, bringing forth or hatching of young. Fetus is now the Standard English spelling throughout the world in medical journals. Where the alternate spelling of foetus is used in a published report, resource, website or journal article the spelling has not been changed.
Researchers use the term teratogen when referring to alcohol. A teratogen is a drug, chemical or even infection that interrupts or alters the normal development of a fetus, including development of the brain or other major organs. Other examples of teratogens include Rubella, radiation, mercury and thalidomide.
Metabolism is the body's process of converting the food we eat and drink into the energy we need to think, move and grow. When a person drinks alcohol it passes from the stomach and intestines into the blood. The placenta links the blood supply of the fetus to the blood supply of the mother and is essential to the growth of a healthy fetus. The placenta cannot keep harmful substances such as alcohol away from the fetus which is why we recommend 'no alcohol in pregnancy is the safest option'. Because the fetus lacks the ability to process the alcohol with their liver, which is not fully formed, they absorb the alcohol and can have the same blood alcohol content or higher than the mother and remains at that level for a longer period of time.
The possible effects of fetal alcohol exposure include:
- Brain damage
- Birth defects
- Poor growth
- Social and behavioural problems
- Delayed development
- Cognitive impairment
Alcohol can affect the facial development of the fetus which occurs early in pregnancy. Read more about Facial Development.
Alcohol causes widespread damage to the brain structure of the developing fetus and will have lifelong effects on the person. The diagram below shows which parts of the brain are responsible for how we think, act and behave and the problems that may be caused by prenatal alcohol exposure.
Alcohol can harm a developing baby at any time during pregnancy - from the early weeks before a woman even knows she is pregnant and right up to the end of pregnancy. For women who are planning a pregnancy or who are pregnant, not drinking alcohol is the safest option. Read about the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol - Guideline 4 Pregnancy and Breastfeeding.
The drawing below shows the critical times for the development of the organs such as the brain, heart, ears and eyes in the fetus. The weeks referred to in this image are the gestational age of the baby.
What is gestational age?
Gestational age refers to the length of time since the
first day of the last menstrual period.
Fetal age refers to the age of the developing baby, counting from the estimated date of conception. The fetal age is usually two weeks less than the gestational age.
This graphical representation has been adapted from Little BB. 2007: Drugs and Pregnancy, A Handbook. London: Hodder Arnold.
Talking about alcohol and pregnancy
Professor in Paediatrics and Child Health at The University of Sydney; Consultant Paediatrician at The Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney; and a National Health and Medical Council of Australia (NHMRC) Practitioner Fellow. Professor Elliott help us to understand more about alcohol and pregnancy and the significance of the Pregnant Pause Campaign. Find out more about the Pregnant Pause Campaign - an initiative of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education
Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol
In 2009 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) released an updated version of the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. These guidelines aim to communicate evidence concerning these risks to the Australian community to allow individuals to make informed decisions regarding the amount of alcohol they choose to consume.
Guideline 4: Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Maternal alcohol consumption can harm the developing foetus or breastfeeding baby.
- For women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, not drinking is the safest option.
- For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is the safest option.
The NHMRC Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol (page 78) conclude:
- Not drinking alcohol is the safest option.
- The risk of harm to the fetus is highest when there is high, frequent, maternal alcohol intake.
- The risk of harm to the fetus is likely to be low if a woman has consumed only small amounts of alcohol before she knew she ws pregnant or during pregnancy.
- The level of risk to the indiviudal fetus is influenced by maternal and fetal characteristics and is hard to predict.
For more information read the NHMRC Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol