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Women who drink alcohol during pregnancy place their developing infants at risk for lifelong difficulties. Scientists have characterized a number of overlapping syndromes – collectively known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) – that result from prenatal alcohol exposure: Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD), Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). In addition to the medical burdens imposed by fetal alcohol exposure, children with FASD may develop behavioral problems that place them at odds with society. In fact, a 2010 report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse estimated that 60% percent of FASD children eventually end up in trouble with the law. 

Behavioral Impacts of FASD

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are marked by a wide array of anomalies, including anatomical defects, growth delay, learning disorders and behavioral problems. Poor impulse control, poor school performance, attachment disorders, lack of remorse, poor short-term memory, poor anger-management skills, poor judgment and inability to link actions with consequences are among the cognitive and psychological manifestations of FASD. Not surprisingly, such deficits tend to isolate these children from their families and peers and, ultimately, increase the likelihood they’ll develop aberrant behaviors.

Environmental Influences Aggravate Unacceptable Behaviors

In addition to the underlying neurological injury associated with FASD, affected children are frequently subjected to environmental influences that aggravate their behavioral issues. In many cases, parents of FASD children are alcoholics or are otherwise dysfunctional. Inadequate supervision, poor parental modeling, neglect and outright abuse prevent healthy child-parent bonding, create voids in personality development and heighten a sense of isolation.  This encourages already vulnerable children to gravitate toward groups that engage in risky or socially unacceptable behaviors, including lawbreaking.

FASD Diagnosis Is Often Missed or Delayed

Unfortunately, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are not always diagnosed at a time when intervention would be useful. In part, this is due to the sometimes subtle neurological injury that stems from prenatal alcohol exposure. Furthermore, diagnosis of FASD may be missed or delayed because physicians don’t have well-defined diagnostic guidelines to aid them in identifying affected children or discriminating among ARBD, ARND and FAS. Failure to identify FASD children early in life only increases the likelihood for aberrant behaviors later on.

Recidivism Is High Among FASD Offenders

For a variety of reasons, there are no accurate data regarding the number of FASD-affected individuals in the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems in the United States. (For one thing, it isn’t clear how many undiagnosed people with FASD are among the general population.) A 2004 study performed at Rutgers University estimated there were around 28,000 undiagnosed cases of FASD in U.S. prisons and jails. Given the lifelong nature of FASD and its pervasive effects on behavior, even if these individuals are released from incarceration, the risk for recidivism and re-incarceration is high.

Pregnancy and Alcohol Don’t Mix

Alcohol is toxic to developing fetuses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy, and there is no safe time to drink alcohol if you’re pregnant. Since alcohol can cause fetal injury at any stage of pregnancy and since no one knows how much alcohol it takes to inflict harm, no pregnant woman should drink alcohol. In addition, women who are trying to conceive should stop drinking alcohol, because they could get pregnant and not realize it for several weeks, at which point significant fetal harm may have already been inflicted. Parents who have children they believe may be affected by a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder should share their concerns with their physicians.


1.      U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

2.      U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Protecting Children in Families Affected by Substance Use Disorders

3.      The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University: Behind Bars II: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population

4.      National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Guidelines for Referral and Diagnosis