Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Overview

Definition

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) belongs to a group of health problems called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). It happens when a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy. The alcohol can cause birth and growth defects in the baby. These defects make up FAS.

Causes

Alcohol can cross from the mother's blood to the baby's blood. Even a small amount of any type can harm a growing baby.

Blood Traveling Through Mother's Placenta to Baby
baby fetus placenta
Alcohol travels through this path and affects the baby's development, particularly the heart and brain.
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

Things that raise a baby's chance of FAS are:

  • Unplanned pregnancy or not knowing you are pregnant and still drinking
  • Alcohol use disorder in the mother

SymptomsandDiagnosis

Symptoms

Birth and growth problems depend on when the exposure happened and how much was consumed.

Babies with FAS may have:

  • Low birth weight
  • Small size and slowed growth
  • Small head
  • Small eyes
  • Short, flat nose
  • Flat cheeks
  • Small jaws
  • Misshapen ears
  • Thin upper lip
  • Shaking
  • Sight and hearing problems
  • Problems seeing

As the infant grows, other symptoms may develop, such as:

  • Problems eating and sleeping
  • Delayed speech
  • Learning problems
  • Poor coordination
  • Behavior problems
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Problems getting along with other children

Children do not outgrow these problems. Teens and adults often have social and emotional problems. They may also have:

  • Problems at school
  • Problems keeping a job
  • Trouble living on one's own
  • Mental health problems
  • Alcohol or substance abuse disorder
  • Anxiety problems
  • Anger problems
  • Legal problems

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your alcohol intake while pregnant. You will also be asked about your child's symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. This is often enough to make the diagnosis.

Treatments

Treatment

There is no cure. The goal is to manage symptoms. Choices are:

  • Social services to teach parents how to care for and support a child with special needs
  • Special education services to help with learning

Prevention

Women should not drink alcohol while pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.

a (Alcohol in Pregnancy; Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy; FAS)

RESOURCES

Kids Health—Nemours Foundation http://www.kidshealth.org 

March of Dimes https://www.marchofdimes.org 

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Greater Toronto Area Intergroup http://aatoronto.org 

Women's Health Matters http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca 

References

Cook JL, Green CR, et al; Canada Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research Network. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder: a guideline for diagnosis across the lifespan. CMAJ. 2016 Feb 16;188(3):191-197.

Drinking and your pregnancy. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/DrinkingPregnancy%5FHTML/pregnancy.htm. Accessed November 4, 2020.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/fetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorder. Accessed November 4, 2020.