What is fetal alcohol syndrome?
Drinking alcohol during her pregnancy can cause a woman’s baby to be born with birth defects and developmental disabilities. In fact, alcohol (beer, wine, or hard liquor) is the leading cause of preventable birth defects and developmental disabilities in the United States.
Babies exposed to alcohol in the womb can develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). These disorders include a wide range of physical, behavioral, and learning problems. The most severe type of FASD is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). It is caused by heavy drinking during pregnancy.
How common is fetal alcohol syndrome?
We do not know exactly how many people have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Several different approaches have been used to estimate how many persons are living with FASDs in the population. FASDs include several diagnoses related to exposure of the baby to alcohol during pregnancy. More specifically, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most involved diagnosis, used when several physical and developmental abnormalities are present. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome?
Physical defects may include:
- Distinctive facial features, including small eyes, an exceptionally thin upper lip, a short, upturned nose, and a smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip
- Deformities of joints, limbs and fingers
- Slow physical growth before and after birth
- Vision difficulties or hearing problems
- Small head circumference and brain size
- Heart defects and problems with kidneys and bones
Brain and central nervous system problems
Problems with the brain and central nervous system may include:
- Poor coordination or balance
- Intellectual disability, learning disorders and delayed development
- Poor memory
- Trouble with attention and with processing information
- Difficulty with reasoning and problem-solving
- Difficulty identifying consequences of choices
- Poor judgment skills
- Jitteriness or hyperactivity
- Rapidly changing moods
Social and behavioral issues
Problems in functioning, coping and interacting with others may include:
- Difficulty in school
- Trouble getting along with others
- Poor social skills
- Trouble adapting to change or switching from one task to another
- Problems with behavior and impulse control
- Poor concept of time
- Problems staying on task
- Difficulty planning or working toward a goal
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you have any of the following:
If you’re pregnant and can’t stop drinking, ask your obstetrician, primary care doctor or mental health professional for help.
Because early diagnosis may help reduce the risk of long-term problems for children with fetal alcohol syndrome, let your child’s doctor know if you drank alcohol while you were pregnant. Don’t wait for problems to arise before seeking help.
If you have adopted a child or are providing foster care, you may not know if the biological mother drank alcohol while pregnant — and it may not initially occur to you that your child may have fetal alcohol syndrome. However, if your child has problems with learning and behavior, talk with his or her doctor so that the underlying cause might be identified.
What causes fetal alcohol syndrome?
When you’re pregnant and you drink alcohol:
- Alcohol enters your bloodstream and reaches your developing fetus by crossing the placenta
- Alcohol causes higher blood alcohol concentrations in your developing baby than in your body because a fetus metabolizes alcohol slower than an adult does
- Alcohol interferes with the delivery of oxygen and optimal nutrition to your developing baby
- Exposure to alcohol before birth can harm the development of tissues and organs and cause permanent brain damage in your baby
- The more you drink while pregnant, the greater the risk to your unborn baby. However, any amount of alcohol puts your baby at risk. Your baby’s brain, heart and blood vessels begin to develop in the early weeks of pregnancy, before you may know you’re pregnant.
Impairment of facial features, the heart and other organs, including the bones, and the central nervous system may occur as a result of drinking alcohol during the first trimester. That’s when these parts of the fetus are in key stages of development. However, the risk is present at any time during pregnancy.
What increases my risk for fetal alcohol syndrome?
The more alcohol you drink during pregnancy, the greater the chance of problems in your baby. There’s no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
You could put your baby at risk even before you realize you’re pregnant. Don’t drink alcohol if:
- You’re pregnant
- You think you might be pregnant
- You’re trying to become pregnant
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is fetal alcohol syndrome diagnosed?
The earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome. Talk to your doctor if you think your child might have FAS. Let your doctor know if you drank while you were pregnant.
A physical exam of the baby may show a heart murmur or other heart problems. As the baby matures, there may be other signs that help confirm the diagnosis. These include:
- Slow rate of growth
- Abnormal facial features or bone growth
- Hearing and vision problems
- Slow language acquisition
- Small head size
- Poor coordination
To diagnose someone with FAS, the doctor must determine that they have abnormal facial features, slower than normal growth, and central nervous system problems. These nervous system problems could be physical or behavioral. They might present as hyperactivity, lack of coordination or focus, or learning disabilities.
How is fetal alcohol syndrome treated?
While FAS is incurable, there are treatments for some symptoms. The earlier the diagnosis, the more progress can be made. Depending on the symptoms a child with FAS exhibits, they may need many doctor or specialist visits. Special education and social services can help very young children. For example, speech therapists can work with toddlers to help them learn to talk.
Children with FAS will benefit from a stable and loving home. They can be even more sensitive to disruptions in routine than an average child. Children with FAS are especially likely to develop problems with violence and substance abuse later in life if they are exposed to violence or abuse at home. These children do well with a regular routine, simple rules to follow, and rewards for positive behavior.
There are no medications that specifically treat FAS. However, several medications may address symptoms.
These medications include:
- Antidepressants to treat problems with sadness and negativity
- Stimulants to treat lack of focus, hyperactivity, and other behavioral problems
- Neuroleptics to treat anxiety and aggression
- Antianxiety drugs to treat anxiety
Behavioral training may also help. For instance, friendship training teaches kids social skills for interacting with their peers. Executive function training may improve skills such as self-control, reasoning, and understanding cause and effect. Children with FAS might also need academic help. For example, a math tutor could help a child who struggles in school.
Parents and siblings might also need help in dealing with the challenges this condition can cause. This help can come through talk therapy or support groups. Parents can also receive parental training tailored to the needs of their children. Parental training teaches you how to best interact with and care for your child.
Some parents and their children seek alternative treatments outside of the medical establishment. These include healing practices, such as massage and acupuncture (the placement of thin needles into key body areas). Alternative treatments also include movement techniques, such as exercise or yoga.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage fetal alcohol syndrome?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with fetal alcohol syndrome:
- Don’t drink alcohol if you’re trying to get pregnant. If you haven’t already stopped drinking, stop as soon as you know you’re pregnant or if you even think you might be pregnant. It’s never too late to stop drinking during your pregnancy, but the sooner you stop, the better it is for your baby.
- Continue to avoid alcohol throughout your pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome is completely preventable in children whose mothers don’t drink during pregnancy.
- Consider giving up alcohol during your childbearing years if you’re sexually active and you’re having unprotected sex. Many pregnancies are unplanned, and damage can occur in the earliest weeks of pregnancy.
- If you have an alcohol problem, get help before you get pregnant. Get professional help to determine your level of dependence on alcohol and to develop a treatment plan.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Review Date: July 6, 2017 | Last Modified: July 6, 2017
Prevalence of FASDs. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/data.html. Accessed July 4, 2017.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. http://www.healthline.com/health/fetal-alcohol-syndrome#overview1. Accessed July 4, 2017.
Fetal alcohol syndrome. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fetal-alcohol-syndrome/home/ovc-20318274. Accessed July 4, 2017.