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No Amount of Alcohol Safe for Women who are Pregnant or Trying to Conceive, MU Expert Says

Expectant mothers who drink put babies at risk for birth defects

September 4th, 2013

Story Contact: Jesslyn Chew,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Each year, nearly 40,000 babies are born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disorders are caused by mothers’ alcohol consumption during pregnancy and range in severity. Some infants with the most severe form of FASDs have serious physical, psychological and developmental conditions that continue into adulthood. Leigh Tenkku, associate research professor in the School of Social Work, says no amount and no type of alcohol is safe for women to drink during pregnancy.

“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.”

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 said. “We don’t know with absolute certainty that one drink during pregnancy will cause FASDs in children. 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 recommends that medical professionals be more open with their female patients about the dangers of consuming alcohol during pregnancy.

“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,” Tenkku said. “Ideally, medical professionals would ask their patients, particularly women, about their alcohol use at every patient encounter.”

“Why take the risk?” Tenkku said. “Why wouldn’t you want to give your child the best chance at having a healthy life from the very beginning?”

Tenkku is the director for research and director of the doctoral program for the School of Social Work, which is part of the MU College of Human Environmental Sciences. She has received more than $1 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support her ongoing work as director of the Midwest Regional Fetal Alcohol Symptom Training Center, a group of individuals who work to increase knowledge and education regarding prevention, diagnosis and management of FASDs. For more information about FASDs, visit or

NOTE: Sept. 9 is International FASD Day. For a list of FASD Day events taking place on the MU campus, visit: MU, Columbia Participate in National Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Day