Gestational Exposure to Alcohol

For centuries it has been commonly understood that certain substances, when consumed during pregnancy, are harmless to the pregnant mother, but toxic to the developing fetus. Alcohol is one example. As a result, admonitions against its use are commonplace in the historical, philosophical and religious literature. In the Old Testament Judges 13:7 warns: “Behold, thou shalt conceive and bear a son; and now drink no wine or strong drink.” Carthage and Sparta prohibited newlyweds from consuming alcohol, perhaps to protect against the possibility of alcoholrelated birth defects. Aristotle recognized that drunken women conceive children with developmental problems, saying that “foolish, drunken, or hare-brain women, for the most part, bring forth children like unto themselves” (as cited in Mattson and Riley 1998).

During the first half of the 18th Century in Britain the working class consumed excessive quantities of gin. Some physicians during that period warned that alcohol consumption during pregnancy was the cause of weak, feeble-minded and distempered children. However, this warning was generally dismissed until the second half of the 20th Century, following the thalidomide tragedy of the late 1950s. Up until that point the medical consensus was that the placenta protected the developing fetus from noxious or toxic substances such as alcohol.

It is now known that when consumed during pregnancy, alcohol can have deleterious physical and psychological effects on the developing fetus. Recent data indicate that anywhere from 10 percent to 16 percent of children have been gestationally exposed to alcohol (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 1991 and 1995). Approximately 30 percent of children prenatally exposed to heavy alcohol exposure will manifest Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) (Streissguth 1991, Sampson and Barr, 1989).


Prenatal Exposure Alcohol Exposure Heavy Alcohol Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder 
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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

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