The violent behaviour of the Saturday night drunk who gets into a fight on the streets may be attributable to his mother's drinking before he was born, a senior doctor has said.

Harry Burns, Scotland's chief medical officer, said babies born to women who drink heavily in pregnancy develop foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) which can lead to violent behaviour in adulthood.

Dr Burns said he believed the condition was directly linked to antisocial behaviour on Scotland's streets. He called on women to abstain from drinking alcohol altogether during pregnancy, despite official advice that one or two drinks a week is safe.

Dr Burns was appearing before Holyrood's Health committee, answering questions about the effects of poor parental care on babies and toddlers. The only major study of the prevalence of FASD – carried out in Italy – estimated that 4 per cent of schoolchildren were affected, he said. It concluded that the Italian custom of drinking wine with meals had as severe an impact on pregnant women as binge-drinking in other countries.

"I suspect that significantly underestimates the problem of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Scotland. I would bet the incidence is very high in young men being violent. If you can identify the risk factors in that, that is something we can definitely intervene in," said Dr Burns.

A report by the British Medical Association, published last year, said the incidence of FASD was estimated at 20-40 cases per 1,000 live births in Italy and at 10 cases per 1,000 in Canada. No information was available for the UK.

Alcohol can cross the placenta and, if drunk in quantity, damage the foetus's brain. The BMA report said it can lead to attention deficits, hyperactivity, learning disabilities and poor social understanding. It did not mention violence.

The most severe form of the disorder, called foetal alcohol syndrome, is the only form officially recognised in Britain and is estimated to affect one in 1,000 live births here.

Dr Burns said the problem of street violence was being tackled in Scotland by intervening with young people at an early age when it was already clear they were falling into a violent lifestyle. Early action was more effective before they had been in trouble with the law, rather than after.

"[Young people] wander about the centre of our cities at night, particularly at weekends and that's when the gang fights start," he said.

Dr Burns called for more leisure facilities, including midnight football leagues, to tackle the problem.