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How does alcohol damage a baby’s brain?

When a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy, the baby’s alcohol levels reach that of the mother’s within minutes. However, the baby is so small that the alcohol’s effects are infinitely more damaging than they are to the mother. Much damage can be done before the woman ever knows she is pregnant. During the first month of a baby’s life, cells organize to become the baby’s organs—including the brain and spinal cord. Alcohol can interfere with the baby’s ability to mobilize, differentiate, grow and replicate cells in the right place at the right time—especially in the brain and central nervous system. Both continue to develop every day during pregnancy, and even afterwards—through the child’s late teen years. When this is blocked, structural and developmental problems occur. Parts of the brain that are most susceptible will be smaller than normal or partially absent. Nerve connections don’t form properly. Nerves also transmit information poorly or “misfire,” like a wire with frayed insulation. All of this adds up to global damage that impacts every aspect of the child’s life.

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