Fetal alcohol exposure is a leading cause of mental retardation and developmental delay in children. A new study published in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research analyzes data from women enrolled in a large government-funded alcohol intervention program.

University of New Mexico clinical psychologist and study author Nancy Handmaker says ultrasound revealed reduced fetal skull growth in women who continued to drink during pregnancy, compared with those who did not. "What is remarkable and surprising is that when women quit after pregnancy awareness, even among the heavier drinkers, this was not true," she says and adds, "Their growth measures were indistinguishable from those who drank at lower doses and they were indistinguishable from a group of women who had reported no alcohol consumption or smoking."

Handmaker says unlike adults who can recover from alcohol addiction, the developing brain suffers life-long consequences of a mother's ignorance or poor judgment. "That is because alcohol causes brain damage. Alcohol is a teratogen. It is substance that damages the fetus and there is no opportunity for brain structures to recover."

Handmaker says regular ultrasound scans can identify women at risk, detect harm to a fetus, and help pregnant mothers to quit drinking alcohol. "Then we have an opportunity for intervention, some kind of counseling or referral regarding the impact of their health habits on the developing fetus."

Handmaker says timely interventions can result in healthier pregnancies and healthier babies.