During pregnancy, ingestion of alcohol, a known teratogen, can cause harm to the fetus. Prenatal alcohol exposure is one of the leading causes of birth defects, developmental disorders, and mental retardation in children. The fetal central nervous system is particularly vulnerable to alcohol; this vulnerability contributes to many of the long-term disabilities and disorders seen in individuals with prenatal alcohol exposure.
Diagnoses associated with prenatal alcohol exposure include fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), partial fetal alcohol syndrome, fetal alcohol effects, alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, and alcohol-related birth defects. Once diagnosed, early intervention improves the long-term outcome of affected children. Without documentation of maternal alcohol use, a diagnosis, and consequently treatment, is often difficult to attain. It is imperative that nurses, physicians, and other healthcare providers become comfortable with obtaining a history of, and providing anticipatory guidance and counseling about, alcohol use.