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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

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What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a type of birth defect caused by alcohol exposure during pregnancy. FAS causes both brain damage and mental and physical growth problems in the infant.
The symptoms and problems caused by FAS vary from infant to infant, but all defects are irreversible. No amount of alcohol is safe to consume during pregnancy. If alcohol is consumed during any part of pregnancy, the baby is at risk of developing fetal alcohol syndrome.

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a type of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are the term for a range of disorders that cause mental and physical birth defects. FAS is the most severe type of FASDs.

Types of FASDs include:
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder
  • Alcohol-related birth defects
  • Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Symptoms

FAS affects all infants differently, but problems can be mild to severe. All symptoms are permanent and often worsen as the infant grows up.
In addition to the risk of FAS and birth defects, drinking alcohol during pregnancy also increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and preterm labor.
Fetal alcohol syndrome symptoms can include:
  • Learning and intellectual disabilities
  • Low IQ
  • Heart problems
  • Kidney defects and abnormalities 
  • Small head and brain size
  • Deformed limbs and/or fingers
  • Hyperactivity
  • Delayed development
  • Mood swings
  • Vision problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Problems with suckling and latching as an infant
  • Poor social skills 
  • Difficulty in school
  • Slow and delayed physical growth
In addition to the risk of FAS and birth defects, drinking alcohol during pregnancy also increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and preterm labor.  

Causes of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome. Alcohol, such as wine, beer, or hard liquor, enters the bloodstream and crosses the placenta to reach the developing fetus. 
Because the fetus metabolizes alcohol more slowly than an adult does, the alcohol affects it more severely. The higher blood alcohol concentrations interfere with the delivery of oxygen and nutrition to the baby. It can also cause brain damage and harm the developing tissues and organs.

The more alcohol that is consumed during pregnancy, the greater the risk of the baby developing FAS. Even a small amount of alcohol can put the fetus at risk, however. 

The fetus’s heart, organs, brain, blood vessels, and central nervous system begin developing during the first trimester.  Therefore the risk is higher if the pregnant woman drinks alcohol during the first trimester. 

However, the baby develops at key milestones during each month of pregnancy, so the risk is present all the time, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics

Complications of FAS

Some problems behaviors not present at birth may manifest later on in the child’s life. These are known as secondary disabilities that are directly caused by FAS and may include:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Aggression 
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Mental health disorders like depression, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders
  • Problems staying in school and with employment
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors
  • Early death by suicide, homicide, or an accident caused by reckless behavior

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosis

Although there is no cure for FAS, an early diagnosis can mean better management of symptoms.
Ideally, the pregnant mother should tell her physician that she has been drinking while pregnant. Once the baby is born, a physical exam may help confirm the diagnosis.
Signs of FAS affects infants and developing children include:
  • Heart murmur
  • Slow growth rate
  • Abnormal facial features
  • Unusually small head
  • Hearing and vision problems
  • Poor coordination
  • Central nervous system problems
If the doctor has not been informed of the mother drinking while pregnant, or if there is no way to prove it, they may reach a diagnosis if the baby is underweight, has poor coordination, a small head, and has problems latching or suckling.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Treatment

There is no cure for FAS, but there are ways to treat behavioral, physical, and mental problems. Parents can also get training and therapy so that they are better equipped to raise and help their child. Although there are no medications used to treat FAS, certain medications can help with symptoms.

Medications can help with FAS symptoms:
  • Antidepressants may be prescribed to help treat problems with mood swings, sleep problems, aggression, depression, and problems concentrating at school. 
  • Anti-anxiety medication may be administered to help calm aggression, anxiety, and neurosis. 
  • Stimulants may be prescribed to treat behavioral issues such as trouble concentrating, hyperactivity, restlessness, and poor impulse control. 
  • Neuroleptics are sometimes used to treat aggression and anxiety. 

Certain types of behavioral therapy may help. Children may be taught social skills to enable them to interact with their peers. Further therapies may be needed to help the child improve cognitive skills and self-control, reasoning, and understanding cause and effect.

Often, children with FAS may need help with school. They may require extra lessons or tutoring.

Depending on the complications caused by FAS, further therapy and medication may be needed to treat the secondary disabilities. 

Preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The only way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is to not drink any alcohol at any time throughout the duration of pregnancy.
The following guidelines can further help to prevent FAS:
  • Do not drink alcohol while trying to conceive: If a woman is trying to conceive, she should abstain from drinking even before a confirmed pregnancy.


  • Consider not drinking during childbearing years, if not using contraception: Many pregnancies are unplanned, especially if no contraception is being used. Most damage from alcohol is caused during the earliest weeks of pregnancy, often before the woman even knows she is pregnant. 


  • An alcohol problem should be treated before pregnancy: If a woman is battling alcoholism, she should seek treatment before she considers conceiving. 

Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse

The very first step in preventing fetal alcohol syndrome is to address any pre-existing drinking problem before pregnancy occurs.
However, if you are already pregnant, it is not too late to get the help you need to lower your baby’s risk of developing FAS.

If you are worried that you or a loved one has a drinking problem, get help today. At Addiction Rehab Treatment, we specialize in helping you find the right treatment center.

We know that addiction treatment is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Chat to one of our compassionate treatment navigators 24/7 and get the individualized help you need to get your life back on track.

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