Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

What is fetal alcohol syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the term used for problems a child may have if the child’s mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy. The problems may be physical, mental, or behavioral.

The effects of FAS last throughout life. A baby with FAS may be irritable, nervous, and very sensitive to sound and light and may cry often. The problems change as the child grows up. Problems with aggressive behavior, mental illness, and substance abuse may start in the teen years.

What is the cause?

FAS can happen if you drink beer, wine, or hard liquor while you are pregnant. Any alcohol you drink goes into your bloodstream and then through the placenta and into the baby’s bloodstream. The amount of alcohol in the baby’s bloodstream is the same as the amount in your bloodstream. The alcohol can affect the baby’s growth and development. For example, drinking alcohol in the first 3 months of pregnancy may cause problems with the development of the nervous system. This can result in mental disorders. It may also cause birth defects by affecting the development of the baby’s organs.

It is not clear how much alcohol puts the baby at risk. However, it is clear that the more you drink during pregnancy, the more likely it is that harm will come to the baby. Because we do not know what level of alcohol is safe, drinking no alcohol at all during pregnancy is the only sure way to avoid any risk of problems from alcohol.

What are the symptoms?

After birth, children who have FAS may have one or more of the following problems:

  • Intellectual disability (mental retardation)
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Small size and slow growth
  • Thin upper lip
  • Cleft palate
  • Abnormal bones, eyes, nose, face, limbs, joints, and fingers
  • Low-set ears
  • Very small head and brain
  • Heart defects
  • A lot of ear infections
  • Hearing loss
  • Dental problems
  • Vision problems
  • Behavior problems such as hyperactivity, extreme nervousness, learning disabilities, and poor attention span

How is it diagnosed?

There is no reliable way to diagnose FAS before birth. There are no lab tests for it. If it is known that the mother has been drinking a lot during pregnancy and an ultrasound shows that the baby is small for its age or has unusual features, FAS is a possible cause.

FAS may be diagnosed if your child has at 1 or more of these 3 types of problems:

  • Slowed growth (before or after birth)
  • Facial abnormalities, such as a face and nose that look flat, narrow eye slits, and a malformed upper lip and mouth
  • Problems with the nervous system

How is it treated?

There is no cure for FAS, but some problems may be helped with treatment. For example, heart problems can often be helped with surgery. Plastic surgery can help correct severe face deformities. For intellectual and learning disabilities, special education classes in school can help.

How can I help prevent fetal alcohol syndrome?

No amount of alcohol has been proven to be absolutely safe for the unborn child. Alcohol use during pregnancy also causes problems for mothers, such as:

  • Hepatitis, anemia, tuberculosis, and high blood pressure
  • Miscarriages or a long-drawn-out “hard labor”
  • Greater risk of parenting problems and child abuse or neglect

To give your baby a better chance to be born healthy, avoid alcohol throughout your pregnancy. Also, do not drink alcohol when you are trying to get pregnant.

For more information, contact:

National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS)
Phone: (202) 785-4585
Web site: http://www.nofas.org/.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-01-08
Last reviewed: 2014-01-08
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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