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J Perinatol. 2012 Sep;32(9):652-9. doi: 10.1038/jp.2012.57. Epub 2012 May 17.

Prenatal alcohol exposure, blood alcohol concentrations and alcohol elimination rates for the mother, fetus and newborn.

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North Dakota Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Center, Department of Pediatrics, University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Grand Forks, ND 58203, USA.


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a common cause of intellectual impairment and birth defects. More recently, prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) has been found to be a risk factor for fetal mortality, stillbirth and infant and child mortality. This has led to increased concern about detection and management of PAE. One to 2 h after maternal ingestion, fetal blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) reach levels nearly equivalent to maternal levels. Ethanol elimination by the fetus is impaired because of reduced metabolic capacity. Fetal exposure time is prolonged owing to the reuptake of amniotic-fluid containing ethanol by the fetus. Alcohol elimination from the fetus relies on the mother's metabolic capacity. Metabolic capacity among pregnant women varies eightfold (from 0.0025 to 0.02 g dl(-1)  h(-1)), which may help explain how similar amounts of ethanol consumption during pregnancy results in widely varying phenotypic presentations of FASD. At birth physiological changes alter the neonate's metabolic capacity and it rapidly rises to a mean value of 83.5% of the mother's capacity. FASDs are highly recurrent and younger siblings have increased risk. Detection of prenatal alcohol use offers an important opportunity for office-based interventions to decrease exposure for the remainder of pregnancy and identification of women who need substance abuse treatment. Mothers of children with FAS have been found to drink faster, get drunk quicker and to have higher BACs. A modest increase in the prevalence of a polymorphism of alcohol dehydrogenase, which increases susceptibility to adverse outcomes from PAE has been reported. Lastly, detection of alcohol use and appropriate management would decrease risk from PAE for subsequent pregnancies.

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