If a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy, she risks damaging her baby. Sometimes this can result in mental and physical problems in the baby, called foetal alcohol syndrome.
This can occur because alcohol in the mother's blood passes to her baby through the placenta.
The baby can't process alcohol as well as the mother can, which means it can damage cells in their brain, spinal cord and other parts of their body, and disrupt their development in the womb.
This can result in the loss of the pregnancy. Babies that survive may be left with the lifelong problems described below.
Foetal alcohol syndrome is a type of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), the name for all the various problems that can affect children if their mother drinks alcohol in pregnancy.
This page covers:
A baby exposed to alcohol in the womb may have:
These problems are permanent, though early treatment and support can help limit their impact on an affected child's life.
Speak to your GP or health visitor if you have any concerns about your child's development or think they could have foetal alcohol syndrome.
If the condition isn't diagnosed early on and a child doesn't receive appropriate support, they're more likely to experience challenges associated with the condition.
For example, they may get into trouble at school, have difficulties with learning, misuse drugs or alcohol, develop mental health problems, and find it difficult to get a job and live independently as an adult.
Your doctor or health visitor will need to know if your child was exposed to alcohol during pregnancy to make a diagnosis of foetal alcohol syndrome.
Your child may be referred to a specialist team for an assessment if there's a possibility they have the condition.
This usually involves a physical examination and blood tests to rule out genetic conditions that have similar symptoms to foetal alcohol syndrome.
There is no particular treatment for foetal alcohol syndrome, and the damage to the child's brain and organs can't be reversed. But an early diagnosis and support can make a big difference.
Once the condition has been diagnosed, a team of healthcare professionals can assess the needs of the affected person and offer appropriate educational and behavioural strategies to meet these needs.
You may also find it helpful to contact a support group for people with foetal alcohol syndrome. These can be a good source of advice, and they may be able to connect you with other people in a similar situation.
Foetal alcohol syndrome is completely avoidable if you don't drink alcohol while you're pregnant.
The risk is higher the more you drink, although there's no proven "safe" level of alcohol in pregnancy. Not drinking at all is the safest approach.
If you're pregnant and struggling with an alcohol problem, talk to your midwife, doctor or pharmacist.
It's never too late to stop drinking: stopping at any point during pregnancy can help reduce the risk of problems in your baby.
Confidential help and support is also available from: