According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year between 1,300 and 8,000 babies in the United States are born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS is a combination of physical and mental birth defects. FAS occurs in about 6 percent of the babies born to women who are alcoholics or chronic alcohol abusers. These women either drink excessively throughout pregnancy or have repeated episodes of binge drinking.

Babies with classic FAS are abnormally small at birth and usually do not catch up on growth as they get older. They may have small eyes, a short or upturned nose and small, flat cheeks. Their organs, especially the heart, may not form properly. Many babies with FAS also have a brain that is small and abnormally formed, and most have some degree of mental disability. Many have poor coordination and a short attention span and exhibit behavioral problems.

The effects of FAS last a lifetime. Even if not mentally retarded, adolescents and adults with FAS have varying degrees of psychological and behavioral problems and often find it difficult to hold down a job and live independently.

In addition, 10 times the number of babies born with FAS are born with lesser degrees of alcohol-related damage. This condition is sometimes referred to as fetal alcohol effects (FAE) or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Children with FAE/FASD may have some of the physical or mental birth defects associated with FAS. The Institute of Medicine has proposed more specific diagnostic categories for FAE, referring to the physical birth defects (such as heart defects) as alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD), and to the mental and behavioral abnormalities as alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders (ARND).

In general, alcohol-related birth defects (such as heart defects) are more likely to result from drinking during the first trimester, while growth problems are more likely to result from drinking in the third trimester. However, drinking at any stage of pregnancy can affect the brain.

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