A University of Missouri Professor says women trying to get pregnant should avoid alcohol, and notes that fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can be an evasive disease.

Professor Leigh Tenkku with the MU School of Social Work says no amount and no type of alcohol is safe for women to drink during pregnancy, nor before a pregnancy is realized. Tenkku says most women don’t find out they’re pregnant until up to eight weeks after conception. And she says not all babies show obvious signs of birth defects from alcohol — the wide set eyes, thin lips and flat faces.

“We don’t know with absolute certainty that one drink during pregnancy will cause FASDs in children,” she says. “However, we do know that low levels of drinking can harm developing fetuses throughout the entire pregnancy. Many individual factors — such as mothers’ metabolic rates and how often and how much alcohol they drink — all contribute to the likelihood of children developing FASDs and the severity of the children’s symptoms.”

Tenkku says it’s impossible to say how much is too much from one pregnancy to the next, and because of that, she says there is no safe type or amount of alcohol both during pregnancy, or while trying to conceive.

She has been studying the effects of alcohol on fetuses for more than a decade, and continues to research the broad range of problems that can occur. Right now, she is preparing to publish data on home-based intervention for children ages 12 to 20 who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome.


“Women should not drink alcohol if they are pregnant and, especially, if they are thinking about becoming pregnant,” Tenkku said. “Women do not find out they are pregnant for up to six to eight weeks into their pregnancies, and the most damaging effects of alcohol on the fetus occur within those first weeks of life. So, women may be putting their babies at risk before they even realize they’re pregnant.”

She says FASDs, like autism spectrum disorders, occur on a spectrum of severity and do not improve over time. However, unlike other birth defects or developmental disorders, FASDs easily can be prevented.

“Of all known birth defects, FASDs are 100 percent preventable if moms refrain from drinking alcohol,” Tenkku says. “Medical professionals should support no alcohol during pregnancy and should counsel women who are considering becoming pregnant to not drink when they are trying to conceive. Ideally, medical professionals would ask their patients, particularly women, about their alcohol use at every patient encounter.”

“Why take the risk?” she asks.

AUDIO: Jessica Machetta reports (1:24)