Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Development

A Peek Inside the Womb

There is no shortage of information and education available on the health and development of a fetus - defined as a human embryo in the mother's uterus. The stages of fetal development are well documented and you can follow the growth of a human baby from conception through birth in fetal development pictures in books, on film and on the internet. What was once so very secret is now open for all to see. It's possible to get 4D fetal images of you baby in utero, and when you see the pictures you get the sense that you can touch the baby right at that moment. Modern technology has given us so very much.

The fetal period of development, which begins at about the eighth week of gestation and carries on through the birth of the baby, is a very delicate and critical time. Babies in the uterus are developing, growing, and gaining weight. It is imperative that they be given every possible chance to do so without harm or danger. Yet, many babies are exposed to toxins which have the potential to cause irreparable damage to their bodies and brains. Most of the time, the introduction to the poison occurs in early pregnancy and may come in the form of cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol.

Drinking Mothers and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome is the result of a pregnant woman drinking alcohol during her pregnancy and the alcohol damages the unborn baby. When a woman drinks during pregnancy, her baby drinks as well. Alcohol has the power to cross the placenta and cause toxic damage to the fetus, mentally and physically. Fetal alcohol damage is characterized by low birth weight and a failure to thrive. Mental retardation, abnormal facial features, vision or hearing problems and behavioral problems are associated with FAS. Developmental delays, organ dysfunction, epilepsy, poor coordination and learning difficulties are only a few of the many symptoms and problems associated with this terrible syndrome. The greatest tragedy of all is that alcohol is the leading known preventable cause of birth defects in the US, yet 1 in every 750 infants born in the US are affected by it.

Preterm Labor and Alcohol Consumption

Another effect of alcohol consumption during pregnancy is the possibility of preterm labor. A woman who is showing signs of preterm delivery, having contractions or other symptoms of labor between 24 and 34 weeks, may be given a fetal fibronectin test. This test cannot actually tell if a woman is in labor, but it can tell if she isn't. In the early stages of preterm labor it is difficult to determine for sure if a woman is actually in labor based on her symptoms and a pelvic exam. A negative result on the fetal fibronectin test means that it is highly unlikely a woman will go into labor over the coming two weeks - which is good news if she's only six or seven months pregnant. However, a positive result doesn't really give much information other than the risk is higher for a preterm delivery, but it doesn't guarantee that there will actually be an early labor or delivery. This doesn't help a physician in terms of managing the situation.

One Drink is Okay, Isn't It?

A recent and small study from France addressed the idea of drinking a glass of wine occasionally during pregnancy being acceptable. The results indicated that the number of birth defects that could be attributed to alcohol were not in excess of any other causes. However, it is generally accepted that drinking any amount of alcohol during pregnancy puts undo risk upon the baby's health. Why take the chance? It is better to abstain completely from drinking any form of alcohol while pregnant than possibly risking your baby's mental and physical well being. The tendency to drink unto drunkenness is a sad reality in North American culture. The warning is clear.

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