Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a set of physical and mental birth defects associated with the expectant mother’s consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Outcomes of FAS can range from facial malformation, which corrects over time to Attention Deficit Disorder, which lasts a lifetime.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the leading known cause of mental retardation.
Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) is another condition related to FAS. With ARND, children lack the characteristic FAS facial defects, but exhibit the same alcohol-induced mental impairment.

What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

A mother’s blood provides a developing fetus with nourishment and oxygen through the placenta during pregnancy. When alcohol is consumed, the alcohol enters the mother’s bloodstream, goes through the placenta and enters the blood supply of the growing baby.

When a mother drinks, so does her baby. This alcohol interferes with the fetus’ development in different ways, depending upon the amount consumed, timing and pattern of use.

For instance, alcohol has been known to obstruct the development, function, migration and survival of nerve cells. Memory, attention, learning and social problems can result.

Alcohol can also interfere with an embryo’s cells’ development into the bones and cartilage of the head and face. Therefore, many FAS cases are characterized by facial defects.

Researchers have not isolated the exact amount of alcohol it takes to cause this interference or the exact time in fetal growth when it occurs. Therefore, based upon current knowledge, there is no safe level of drinking at any time during pregnancy.

What Are the Characteristics of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Children with FAS can be recognized at birth by a set of physical traits. These traits tend to become more normal as the child gets older. They include:

  • Small birth weight
  • Small head circumference
  • Small, widely spaced eyes
  • Flat mid-face
  • Short, upturned nose
  • Thin upper lip
  • Underdeveloped jaw

But the physical defects don’t stop here. Other, more long-term physical effects include:

  • Deafness/hearing loss
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Blindness/vision loss
  • Epilepsy
  • Heart defects
  • Muscle spasms
  • Asthma

Some other effects of FAS go unseen at birth, but last a lifetime. These may include:

  • Mental retardation
  • Increased risk for mental illness
  • Attention deficits
  • Memory deficits
  • Hyperactivity
  • Poor problem solving skills
  • Learning difficulties
  • Poor judgment
  • Immature behavior
  • Poor impulse control
  • Hearing and visual problems
  • Poor motor skills and hand-eye coordination

What Are the Treatments for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Although the facial characteristics associated with FAS may become more normal with age, other effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are irreversible and lifelong. They can affect every aspects of an individual’s life. There is no treatment for the entire condition known as FAS, although many of the symptoms/characteristics can be treated separately.
It must be stressed – FAS is 100% preventable, however, if a woman does not drink alcohol while she is pregnant.

How Common is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

The United States’ Centers for Disease Control estimate that 130,000 pregnant women per year in the US consume alcohol at levels shown to increase the risk of having a baby with FAS or other alcohol-related conditions.
More than 2,000 infants are born every year in the US with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Many more are born with ARND.

Additional Resources:

National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
National Women’s Health Information Center

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