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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

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While pregnant, a woman must take precautions to ensure the safety and good health of her child. This includes eating healthy, receiving routine medical care and discontinuing the use of substances such as alcohol. When a woman continues to drink through her pregnancy, the alcohol that enters her body also affects the baby. This increases her risk of miscarriage or giving birth prematurely. In addition, after the baby is born, he or she may be at risk of having problems that will have lifelong consequences. One common problem that affects children born of mothers who drink during their pregnancy is fetal alcohol syndrome.

What Are Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, Such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of several disorders that fall under the umbrella of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). FASDs occur when pregnant women drink alcohol through their pregnancy. There are no known cures for these disorders, but early diagnosis and treatment can prove helpful. There are three FASDs:  fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), alcohol-related birth defects and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders. The most serious of these symptoms is FAS, which may even result in fetal death. A child born with FAS may have central nervous system problems, intellectual disabilities, and abnormal facial features. Alcohol-related birth defects include defects with hearing, bones, kidneys and heart. Children with alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder have problems with learning and behavior. These problems are not as severe as the symptoms of FAS, but they can affect the child in terms of impulse control, memory impairment and future performance when in school.

Causes of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol reaches the baby through the placenta and the umbilical cord. As a result, what the mother drinks, so does the baby. Although the mother’s body is able to manage the alcohol in her system, the baby’s system is smaller and not fully developed. Because of this the baby is unable to break down the alcohol that enters his or her system as quickly or effectively. The relatively large amount of alcohol in the baby’s system interferes with development of body systems and the baby’s ability to receive adequate levels of nutrition. Even light drinking can negatively affect a fetus.


There are a number of concerns that are associated with drinking alcohol during a pregnancy. With FAS, a child may have physical deformities or abnormalities. These include heart defects, facial and cranial deformities and intellectual disability. Addiction is also a serious concern when drinking occurs during pregnancy. When an alcohol-addicted mother continually drinks through her pregnancy, her baby will become dependent on alcohol. After birth the baby is no longer receiving alcohol from the mother and begins to develop withdrawal symptoms that may last up to 18 months.

Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Children and infants with FASDs may display certain symptoms or characteristics. Some of these symptoms may be mistaken for other health conditions. Physical symptoms include poor coordination; small eyes and thinner lips, particularly the upper lip and being smaller than average in weight and height. Other symptoms include learning disabilities, hyperactivity, low IQ, delays in speech, problems with judgment and problems with daily life. In some cases, the long-term consequences of these symptoms may affect them as an adult. Unemployment, criminal activity and failure to complete education may all be characteristics of adults who had FASD.

Diagnosing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

It is important that FASDs, such as FAS, are diagnosed as quickly and as early as possible. Review of the mother’s medical history is a major part of the process of diagnosis. The doctor should be informed if there was any consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. The doctor will also need to perform an examination of the baby. He or she will look for characteristics such as abnormal facial features, abnormal head size, slowness of growth and problems with the central nervous system.


There is no cure for FASDs, nor is there any treatment for birth defects and intellectual disability. Primarily treatment involves treating the symptoms. For example, when an infant is born addicted to alcohol, drugs may be used to treat withdrawal symptoms. Older children may be treated for symptoms such as anxiety, aggression, lack of focus and negativity. This treatment may involve the use of medications such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Therapy and special training may also help treat certain symptoms of FAS.


Fetal alcohol syndrome and other spectrum disorders are completely preventable.  If women refrain from drinking alcohol while pregnant, their babies cannot develop FASD. Women who are struggling with drinking problems prior to pregnancy should seek help to stop drinking. This may involve joining an alcohol treatment group, removing all alcohol from the home and avoiding situations that prompt drinking. If the pregnancy is unplanned, a woman should stop drinking as soon as possible.

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