How Child Development is Affected by Alcohol

The Dangers of Drinking While Pregnant

Considerable evidence has been accumulated regarding the harmful effects of alcohol on fetal and child development. Despite it being well-known, alcohol use by pregnant mothers is the leading preventable cause of birth defects and developmental disabilities in the US and elsewhere.

Why would a woman or girl drink when she is pregnant? One reason is that she is an alcoholic and experiences uncontrollable cravings to use alcohol; she may be a chronic drug and alcohol user and is too apathetic to quit. Another reason is that she is not aware she is pregnant – when she does find out she should cease drinking at once and visit a doctor. Another scenario is that she is uneducated on the subject and is unaware of the potential consequences.

How Child Development is Affected by Drinking AlcoholThere is such a wide range of physical and biochemical abnormalities (birth defects) and developmental conditions resulting from prenatal alcohol consumption that there is an umbrella term for them all: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). The range of FASD is quite broad and includes in utero problems as well as conditions that affect an individual growing up and into adulthood. These include:

  • Malformed face or ears
  • Underdeveloped organs, eyes, teeth, extremities
  • Impaired cognitive abilities, including mental retardation
  • Chronic depression, anxiety, and other mental problems
  • Studies have found 30 separate varieties of brain and nerve damage in newborns
  • Tremors, seizures, deficiency in motor skills, cysts, abnormal brain cavities

The Developing Child

A woman should not drink during any stage of pregnancy, but the first trimester is the most crucial, being the delicate first stages of fetal development. Anything a pregnant mother consumes, drinks, smokes, etc. is broken down into her bloodstream and carried to the placenta which delivers proteins, sugars, fats, vitamins, minerals, and anything else the mother ingested to the unborn baby. This includes any caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, prescription drugs, or other psychoactive substances the mother may have consumed.

Although it is not publicized enough, it is a fact that antidepressants such as Zoloft and Effexor, and other psychotropic drugs can cause birth defects when taken by pregnant mothers. Even lesser known is the fact that the mother who continues taking these drugs while breastfeeding is in fact passing them to her infant. None of these drugs mix well with alcohol in any context.

What to Do if You Suspect a Pregnant Mother Has Been Drinking

If you suspect a pregnant mother has been drinking, you should confront her on it immediately. She could be ignorant of these facts or have a genuine drinking and/or drug problem. If she has been drinking, she is probably ashamed of it and will not wish to admit to the fact. You should use two-way communication and as much as possible make her feel genuinely safe in talking to you. If you educate her on these facts, she will hopefully be truthful with you. She may need genuine help to stop drinking. If she is a long-term alcoholic, she may even be in physical danger if she stops drinking abruptly; in this case, she must get professional help at once. Likewise, a mother who has been taking antidepressants or other psychotropic drugs should receive professional medical and/or holistic help to safely come off them with minimal symptoms.

Underage Drinking

Many adults turn a blind eye to underage drinking because they themselves drank when they were younger. Perhaps they would not have had they been apprised of the additional risks associated with teenage drinking. In general, alcohol affects teenagers differently than adults. A teenager is not done growing and their neural development can be hindered by alcohol intake. Specifically, the National Institute of Health (NIH) reported that adolescent neurodevelopment can be adversely affected by both alcohol and marijuana use. In regards to alcohol use amongst adolescents or teenagers, effects documented include measurable impairment in cognitive ability, memory, brain function, and physical coordination. Tell this to kids or even parents and they may not even believe you, but the evidence is there.

How alcohol affects a person on the short term has a lot to do with body weight and mass – another disadvantage for many teens. When teens and college kids drink, they usually binge drink. In fact, in the US, about 90% of alcohol consumed by youth under 21 is while binge drinking. While getting drunk at a party, it is also common for teens and college kids to use other drugs, such as marijuana and prescription pills. Their judgment can be drastically affected leading to unwanted pregnancies, accidents, injuries, and tragedies.

Drinking & Driving

The most common danger associated with teenage alcohol consumption is drinking and driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the leading cause of death amongst teenagers is motor vehicle accidents, accounting for 35% of teen fatalities. An October 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that one in ten high school students has driven while under the influence of alcohol. The CDC also reports that drivers aged 16-20 with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or higher are seventeen times (17X) more likely to die in a car crash than older drivers. These unsettling statistics presumably trace back to factors such as judgment, education, experience, and how alcohol affects young people in a unique way.


Alcohol is the most common drug. It’s everywhere, in the bars, in the clubs, in the home, at high school and frat parties, highly promoted on television and on the internet. A girl can drink regularly and suddenly find out she’s been drinking for the first month or two of a pregnancy.

There is a considerable amount of medical science and research making it abundantly clear that alcohol and pregnancy do not mix. Similarly, underage drinking is connected with its own set of hazards and disasters.

In the same way that we know of the potentially fatal results of using illicit drugs like cocaine, heroin, or meth while pregnant, we now also know that a number of prescription psychotropic drugs can create disastrous results when used by a pregnant or breastfeeding mother.

Education, communication, wisdom, as well as detoxification and rehabilitation are the definitive answers to these widespread problems. 

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