The Effects of Alcohol on the Prenatal Development of Infants

Last Updated: 07 Dec 2022
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Numerous studies have already proven that alcohol intake during pregnancy results in adverse effects to the physical and mental development of infants. Most of these outcomes begin while the baby is still in the womb, and will continue to manifest as the child grows into adulthood.

Some of the effects of maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy include low birth weight, miscarriage, stillbirth and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS, in turn, has been linked to skeletal abnormalities, cardiac defects and genitourinary malfunctions (Damgaard, Jensen, The Nordic Cryptorchidism Study Group, Petersen, Skakkebæk, Toppari and Main, 2007).

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The Deadly Brew

Alcohol is a beverage that can be produced by fermenting several plant products, such as corn, grapes, apples and potatoes. The process of distillation increases the alcoholic content of a fermented beverage, resulting in “hard liquour” like whisky or rhum. Ethanol is the type of alcohol found in beverages. It is composed of relatively small molecules that the body easily and quickly absorbs (Fredrickson, Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus and Smith, 2003).

Deadlier Effects

Once an alcoholic beverage is swallowed, it proceeds to the stomach and the small intestine – organs that have large amounts of small blood vessels. These blood vessels carry ethanol molecules into the bloodstream, where they are rapidly absorbed by other organs in the body. Alcohol has the most immediate effect on the brain, as it receives a substantial amount of blood that the heart pumps. In addition, the brain’s fatty tissue absorbs alcohol very well (Fredrickson, Nolen-Hoeksema, Loftus and Smith, 2003).

Toxic Components.

Alcohol is composed mainly of carcinogencic substances. In 1998, the International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) claimed that beer, wine and spirits contain both known and suspected human carcinogens such as acid aldehyde, nitrosamines, aflatoxins, ethyl carbamate (urethane), asbestos and arsenic compounds. A 2001 study regarding the rise of breast cancer fatalities in the United States revealed that women who drank at least one alcoholic beverage daily increased their risk of having breast cancer by 10-30% (Calle, Feigelson, Robertson, Thun and Wingo, 2001).

A 1999 study among Puerto Rican men and women, meanwhile, proved that drinkers of alcoholic beverages were more prone to cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx (excluding lip and nasopharynx) than those who do not (Brown, Fraumeni, Harty, Hayes, Kleinman, Bravo-Otero and Winn, 1999).

Alcohol and the Developing Fetus

According to the article Does Alcohol Increase the Risk of Preterm Delivery? (2000), “preterm delivery is an important contributor to neonatal morbidity and morality” (Jørgen, Kesmodel and Olsen, 2000).

Given the aforementioned harmful components and effects of alcohol, it is only a matter of common logic to assume that pregnant women who drink while expecting will give birth to children who will either die early or will have to live with serious health problems for the rest of their lives. What is dismaying is that alcohol intake during pregnancy is a preventable cause of birth defects and illnesses and infant death. Below is an elaboration of some of the effects of alcohol on the prenatal development of infants:

Premature Delivery

According to Theresa Kellerman, founder and director of the FAS Community Resource Center (an Arizona-based organization helping individuals and families that are affected by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders), alcohol intake during pregnancy exposes an expectant mother to other forms of high-risk behavior, which, in turn, result in premature labor.

These risk factors include sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), physical abuse, drug abuse, lack of prenatal care and poor nutrition.

Women who abuse alcohol while pregnant are also more likely to engage in substance abuse during pregnancy. They are also more prone to get into abusive relationships, which often result in physical abuse and the transmission of STDs. Furthermore, alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb and process nutrients. Denial over their drinking problem prevents alcoholic pregnant women to seek treatment (Kellerman, 2006).

Miscarriage and Stillbirth

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy – regardless of the amount consumed – can result in miscarriage and stillbirth. Alcohol is a teratogen, a substance that impairs normal fetal development and may result in miscarriage, birth defects and pregnancy complications (Bower and Elliot, 2008). Even fathers who drink may be responsible for their wives’ miscarriage or giving birth to stillborn babies.

Although males can produce sperm throughout their lifetime, sperm cells, just like other cells in the human body, age – the effects of excessive drinking are more profound on older sperm cells than on younger ones. As a result, men who drink (even if they are married to non-drinkers) are more likely to produce an unhealthy embryo (Saey, 2008).


Indeed, health is wealth. No amount of expert medical care can replace the joy and freedom of good health. Furthermore, no society will prosper if its members are plagued with various health problems. Therefore, every individual must take it upon himself or herself to stay healthy by assuming a healthy lifestyle. By having good health, a person will not only be able to become a functional member of society – he or she will be able to produce healthy offspring that are capable of continuing or even improving society’s achievements.


Brown, L.M., Fraumeni, J. Jr. F., Harty, L.C., Hayes, R.B., Kleinman, D.V., Bravo-Otero, E. & Winn, D.M. (1999). Tobacco and Alcohol Use and Oral Cancer in Puerto Rico. Cancer

 Causes and Control, 10, 27-33. Retrieved June 22, 2003 from JSTOR.

Bower, C. & Bower, E.J. (2008). Alcohol and Pregnancy: The Pivotal Role of the Obstetrician.

Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 48, 236-239. Retrieved June 23, 2008 from EBSCOhost.

Calle, E.E., Feigelson, H.S., Robertson, A.S., Thun, M.J. & Wingo, P.A.. (2001). Alcohol

 Consumption Increases the Risk of Fatal Breast Cancer (United States). Cancer Causes and Control, 12, 895-902. Retrieved June 22, 2008 from JSTOR.

Cite this Page

The Effects of Alcohol on the Prenatal Development of Infants. (2016, Jul 01). Retrieved from

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