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You're pregnant and it's a time for celebration. Your friends are throwing parties, drinking and toasting your good fortune. You don't want to offend them or feel left out, so you have a few drinks. What could it hurt?

Only your baby. You may be shocked to learn that alcohol use by pregnant women is one of the leading causes of mental retardation in the western hemisphere. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) results from the toxic effect of alcohol and its byproducts on the unborn child's developing brain. The seriousness of FAS depends on the pattern and extent of alcohol exposure in the womb.

Some common features of FAS include growth deficiencies in both prenatal and postnatal periods, such as:

  • Facial defects (small head, small eyes, flattened cheekbones, pug nose);
  • Central nervous system defects (attention problems, seizures, learning disabilities, hearing problems).
Although doctors aren't sure of how much alcohol is a danger to a fetus, research shows there is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Every woman is different. Many factors, including the mother's body weight, metabolism and medical history, make it difficult to determine what effect alcohol will have on the fetus.

Doctors do know, though, that women who usually consume two or more drinks per day and women who binge drink have the greatest likelihood of delivering babies with FAS. The only proven technique for avoiding FAS and related birth problems is abstinence; however, you may want to consult with your doctor before making your choice about drinking while pregnant.

In the meantime, please consider this. Learning how the world operates, fitting in and making friends - these things can be tough enough for a youngster even under the best of circumstances. Why make life more difficult for your child, why risk harming its health, by putting it at a serious disadvantage even before birth - a disadvantage that could have been completely avoided merely by staying away from alcohol during pregnancy? It amounts to nothing less than child abuse in the womb.