Maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy can impair the physical and mental development of the fetus, although the vulnerability of individual fetuses varies for reasons that are not yet entirely understood (NRC, 1996). In its most serious form, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) causes craniofacial changes, growth retardation, and central nervous system impairment, including mental retardation and/or hyperactivity (NRC, 1996). Even among children who do not have FAS, however, moderate to heavy drinking during pregnancy has been associated with growth deficits and developmental lags (Streissguth et al., 1996).
National data on the effects of alcohol on fetuses are limited. Indeed, the potentially serious effects of alcohol have been recognized only in the past 30 years. Data collected in 1988 in the National Maternal and Infant Health Survey (Faden et al., 1997) suggest that heavy alcohol consumption during pregnancy (six or more drinks per week) is confined to a relatively small segment of the maternal population. But that rate is considerably higher for American Indian/Alaskan Native women (2.2 percent) and black women (1.2 percent), than for white (0.4 percent), Hispanic (0.3 percent), or Asian/Pacific Islander women (0.7 percent) (see Figure 3-4). The incidence of FAS births is approximately 10 times higher among blacks than among whites (Abel, 1995). No national data are available for other racial/ ethnic groups; however, a surveillance project in four communities (Duimstra et al., 1993) estimated that the rate may be 30 to 40 times higher