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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (for Parents)
If a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy, her baby could be born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which causes a wide range of physical, behavioral, and learning problems.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
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Síndrome de alcoholismo fetal
What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Babies whose mothers drank alcohol during their pregnancy can be born with birth defects and developmental disabilities. The problems that can happen when babies are exposed to alcohol are grouped together and called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). These include a wide range of physical, behavioral, and learning problems. The most severe type of FASD is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
How Does Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Affect Children?
Children with fetal alcohol syndrome have facial features such as small eyes, a thin upper lip, and a smooth philtrum (the groove between nose and upper lip).
They also can have:Poor growth. Newborns may have low birth weights and small heads. They may not grow or gain weight as well as other children.Birth defects. FAS can cause heart, bone, and kidney problems. Vision problems and hearing loss are common.Seizures and other neurologic problems, such as learning disabilities, and poor balance and coordination.Delayed development. Kids may not reach milestones at the expected time.Behavioral problems. Babies may be fussy or jittery, and have trouble sleeping. Older children and teens may have:
a lack of coordination and poor fine-motor skills
trouble getting along with friends and relating to others
learning problems (especially in math), poor memory, and poor problem-solving skills
behavior problems such as hyperactivity, poor attention and concentration, and impulsiveness
Children with other FASDs have many of the same problems, but usually to a lesser degree.
How Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosed?
Doctors can diagnose the condition based on a baby’s symptoms, especially if they know that the mother drank during pregnancy. In children with milder problems, FASD can be harder to diagnose. No blood test or other medical test can diagnose FASD.
The child may go to see a team of specialists who can help make the diagnosis. They might include a developmental pediatrician, neurologist, genetic specialist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and psychologist.
How Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Treated?
There is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome or other FASDs. But many things can help children reach their full potential, especially if the problem is found early.
Kids can benefit from:
early intervention services and special education in school
speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy
classes that teach kids social skills
counseling with a mental health professional
Doctors may prescribe medicines to help with related problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, aggressive behavior, sleep problems, and anxiety.
Parent training can help caregivers learn how to best care for a child with FAS and handle any problem behaviors.
Can Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Be Prevented?
Alcohol use (beer, wine, or hard liquor) during pregnancy is the leading cause of preventable birth defects and intellectual disabilities in the United States.
Fetal alcohol syndrome and other FASDs can be prevented by not drinking any alcohol during pregnancy. A woman shouldn’t drink if she’s trying to get pregnant or thinks she may be pregnant. If a pregnant woman does drink, the sooner she stops, the better it will be for her baby’s health.
Alcohol easily passes through the placenta, the organ that nourishes a baby during pregnancy. So no amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy. Even a little bit of alcohol can harm a developing fetus and increase the risk of miscarriage.
How Can Parents Help?
Children with FASD tend to be friendly and cheerful and enjoy social interaction. But caring for a child with this syndrome can be a challenge. Kids will have lifelong physical, learning, and behavioral problems.
Besides early intervention services and support from your child's school, providing a stable, nurturing, and safe home environment can help reduce the effects of an FASD. Don't be afraid to get help, if needed. Talk to your child's doctor or other members of the care team.
Caregivers should take care of themselves too. Support groups and counselors can help. It's also important to get help for a parent or caregiver who struggles with alcohol addiction.
For more information, visit:
National Organization on Fetal Alcohol SyndromeReviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: November 2020
MORE ON THIS TOPIC FOR:
Is It OK to Have an Occasional Drink During Pregnancy?
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)
Staying Healthy During Pregnancy
What Is Prenatal Care Before Pregnancy?
Basics about FASDs
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy.
Basics about FASDs
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions that can occur in a person who was exposed to alcohol before birth. These effects can include physical problems and problems with behavior and learning. Often, a person with an FASD has a mix of these problems.
Cause and Prevention
FASDs can occur when a person is exposed to alcohol before birth. Alcohol in the mother’s blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord.
There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant. There is also no safe time to drink during pregnancy. Alcohol can cause problems for a developing baby throughout pregnancy, including before a woman knows she’s pregnant. All types of alcohol are equally harmful, including all wines and beer.
To prevent FASDs, a woman should avoid alcohol if she is pregnant or might be pregnant. This is because a woman could get pregnant and not know for up to 4 to 6 weeks.
It is never too late to stop alcohol use during pregnancy. Because brain growth takes place throughout pregnancy, stopping alcohol use will improve the baby’s health and well-being. Resources are available here.
FASDs are preventable if a baby is not exposed to alcohol before birth.
Signs and Symptoms
FASDs refer to a collection of diagnoses that represent the range of effects that can happen to a person who was exposed to alcohol before birth. These conditions can affect each person in different ways, and can range from mild to severe.
A person with an FASD might have:
Low body weight Poor coordination
Difficulty with attention
Difficulty in school (especially with math)
Speech and language delays
Intellectual disability or low IQ
Poor reasoning and judgment skills
Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
Vision or hearing problems
Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones
Small head size
Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip (this ridge is called the philtrum)
FASD Fact Sheet
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Different FASD diagnoses are based on particular symptoms and include:Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): FAS represents the most involved end of the FASD spectrum. People with FAS have central nervous system (CNS) problems, minor facial features, and growth problems. People with FAS can have problems with learning, memory, attention span, communication, vision, or hearing. They might have a mix of these problems. People with FAS often have a hard time in school and trouble getting along with others.Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND): People with ARND might have intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior and learning. They might do poorly in school and have difficulties with math, memory, attention, judgment, and poor impulse control.Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD): People with ARBD might have problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones or with hearing. They might have a mix of these.
People with ND-PAE have problems with thinking, behavior, and life skills. ND-PAE occurs from being exposed to alcohol during pregnancy.Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE): ND-PAE was first included as a recognized condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM 5) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2013. A child or youth with ND-PAE will have problems in three areas: (1) thinking and memory, where the child may have trouble planning or may forget material he or she has already learned, (2) behavior problems, such as severe tantrums, mood issues (for example, irritability), and difficulty shifting attention from one task to another, and (3) trouble with day-to-day living, which can include problems with bathing, dressing for the weather, and playing with other children. In addition, to be diagnosed with ND-PAE, the mother of the child must have consumed more than minimal levels of alcohol before the child’s birth, which APA defines as more than 13 alcoholic drinks per month of pregnancy (that is, any 30-day period of pregnancy) or more than 2 alcoholic drinks in one sitting.
The term fetal alcohol effects (FAE) was previously used to describe intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior and learning in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. In 1996, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) replaced FAE with the terms alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD).
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy. People with FAS may experience lifelong physical and mental defects.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
A permanent condition, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) happens when a person consumes any amount of alcohol during a pregnancy. Alcohol use during pregnancy can interfere with the baby’s development, causing physical and mental defects. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe condition within a group of conditions called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).
Facial features of a child with fetal alcohol syndrome
What is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)?
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition that develops in a fetus (developing baby) when a pregnant person drinks alcohol during pregnancy. A syndrome is a group of symptoms that happen together as the result of a particular disease or abnormal condition. When someone has fetal alcohol syndrome, they’re at the most severe end of what are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).
FAS is a life-long condition that can’t be cured. This condition can be prevented if you don’t drink any alcohol during pregnancy. It’s possible that even small amounts of alcohol consumed during pregnancy can damage your developing fetus.
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What’s the difference between fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)?
When a fetus is exposed to alcohol before birth, the baby’s development can be affected in many different ways. The impact of alcohol use may create mild or severe symptoms. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is this group of signs and symptoms on a scale from least to most effects. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe condition on this scale. Other conditions under the FASD umbrella include:Partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS): People with pFAS have some of the characteristics of FAS (changes to their facial features, for example), but don’t have all the symptoms for FAS.Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND): People with this disorder experience some or all of the following: impulsiveness, inattentiveness and challenges with judgment and school performance.Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD): These are physical birth defects (abnormal changes to parts of the body) that can affect the heart, eyes, skeletal system, ears and kidneys.Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE): Someone with this condition was exposed to more than a small amount of alcohol as a fetus. They have difficulty with daily tasks like bathing and can struggle in social settings because of significant behavior issues like severe tantrums. They also have trouble with thinking and memory.
How common is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)?
There are no exact statistics of how many people have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). It can sometimes be difficult to diagnose a person with FASD because of the variety of symptoms and spectrum of severity. Also, not all people who drink while pregnant feel comfortable talking to their healthcare provider. This means that some people with mild symptoms of FASD might never be diagnosed.
Using the information that is available, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other scientists estimate less than 2 cases of FASD in every 1,000 live births in the United States. When researchers look at the whole spectrum of disorders (FASD), the frequency may be as high as 1 to 5 out of every 100 kids in the U.S. and Western Europe.
In 2019, CDC researchers found that 1 in 9 pregnant people drank alcohol in a 30-day period of time.
SYMPTOMS AND CAUSES
What causes fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)?
Fetal alcohol syndrome happens when a person drinks any alcohol during pregnancy, including wine, beer, hard ciders and “hard liquor”. Without alcohol use, FAS doesn’t happen. One reason alcohol is dangerous during pregnancy is that it’s passed through your bloodstream to the fetus through the umbilical cord. The baby doesn’t metabolize (break down) alcohol in the same way an adult does – it stays in the body for a longer period of time.
Alcohol can interfere with the normal development of the fetus, particularly the brain and central nervous system. This occurs in any of the following ways:
Alcohol can kill cells in different parts of the fetus, causing abnormal physical development.
Alcohol interferes with the way nerve cells develop, how they travel to form different parts of the brain and their functioning.
Alcohol constricts blood vessels, which slows blood flow to the placenta (food supply while in the uterus). This causes a shortage of oxygen and nutrients to the fetus.
Toxic byproducts are produced when the body processes alcohol. These can then concentrate in the baby’s brain cells and cause damage.
Damage from alcohol can happen at any point during pregnancy. The beginning of fetal development is the most important for the whole body, but organs like the brain continue to develop throughout pregnancy. It’s impossible to exactly pinpoint all of the development during pregnancy, making it risky to drink alcohol at any time prior to birth.