Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Overview

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is a term used to describe a wide range of effects and symptoms in children caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. Each year, over 40,000 infants are diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) was the first form of FASD discovered and also the most well-known. FAS is the leading known cause of mental retardation and birth defects in the world. Alcohol use during pregnancy is the direct cause of FAS, which is completely preventable. Alcohol is a known teratogen and therefore, in utero exposure to alcohol can cause many irreversible problems in a child.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there is no “safe” level of alcohol consumption while a female is pregnant. Even the slightest amount of alcoholic substance can seriously and permanently damage the development of an unborn child both physically and cognitively. Despite the extensive public knowledge regarding the dangers of prenatal alcohol exposure, alcohol use is very common and legal. Many pregnant mothers are unaware or chose to ignore the dangers of drinking while pregnant and therefore, continue to drink alcohol while pregnant or before they are aware of their pregnancy.

Causes of FAS

FAS is directly caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy. While there is no “safe” level of alcohol consumption while a female is pregnant, the more a female drinks while pregnant, the greater the risk to the unborn baby.

When a pregnant female drink alcohol, the alcohol enters her bloodstream and reaches the developing fetus by crossing the placenta through the umbilical cord. Alcohol causes higher blood alcohol concentrations in a developing baby than in the baby’s mother’s body because a fetus metabolizes alcohol slower than an adult. When a fetus is exposed to alcohol, the development of tissues and organs are affected. This can cause physical impairments and permanent brain damage.

There are many risk factors that affect the severity of alcohol’s effects on a developing fetus such as how much alcohol the pregnant mother drinks per occasion, the frequency of alcohol use, and at what stage of pregnancy she drinks. Other factors that can play a role in how prenatal alcohol exposure affects children include maternal characteristics such as whether or not the mother smokes, has poor nutrition, is older, or has had multiple pregnancies and births.

Symptoms of FAS

The severity of FAS symptoms in children varies, with some children experiencing them to a far greater degree than others. The symptoms of FAS can include a combination of physical defects, mental disabilities, and other problems functioning in daily life. These symptoms can appear at any time during childhood and last a lifetime.

The physical defects of FAS may include abnormal facial features, such as small eyes, a thin upper lip, a short, upturned nose, flat cheekbones, and underdeveloped jaw structure. FAS can also cause growth deficiencies such as slow physical growth before and after birth, as well as deformities of joints, limbs and fingers. Other physi

cal effects of this syndrome include vision difficulties or hearing problems, small head circumference and brain size, heart defects, and kidney and bone problems. These effects are typically permanent.

FAS can also cause problems in the brain and central nervous system of a child. The intellectual and cognitive effects may include poor coordination or balance, learning disorders, poor memory, and trouble with attention, processing information, and problem-solving. Children may also experience jitteriness or hyperactivity and have poor judgment skills. These symptoms of FAS can lead to difficulty in school, poor social skills, and problems with behavior. In addition, people with FAS are more likely to suffer from mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

 

Treatment

Diagnosing FAS can be tricky because there is no medical test for it. Instead, health care providers will make a diagnosis based on the child’s signs and symptoms and whether or not the mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. After receiving a formal FAS diagnosis, families should recognize and gain a firm understanding of the diagnosis. After this, families will be able to set realistic expectations, as well as facilitate appropriate planning, intervention, and treatment. Because there are a wide range of symptoms and disabilities caused by prenatal alcohol exposure, the correct intervention is unique for each individual family. According to research findings, about 1 out of 750 newborns suffer from FAS; all races and socioeconomic groups are at equal risk. Not only are the physical, mental, and emotional effects of FAS/FAE irreversible, but the financial burden is considerable: institutional and medical costs for one child with FAS add up to about $1.4 million over a lifetime.

There is no cure for FAS but there are many treatments that can help a child with FAS. These treatments include medicines to help with symptoms and different kinds of behavior and education therapies. Research has shown that early intervention treatment services can really help improve a child’s development. Parents of children with FAS can look at the different early intervention systems in their state and see if they qualify for helpful services. Involvement in special education and social services can help children with FAS reach their full potential and receive special help geared towards their specific needs and learning styles. 

Furthermore, a loving and nurturing home environment is very important and can help a child with FAS avoid any secondary conditions, such as criminal behavior, unemployment, and incomplete education.

Prevention

If you are pregnant, attempting to get pregnant, or breast-feeding, do not drink any type or amount of alcohol, no matter how insignificant it may seem. To prevent FAS, females should not avoid all alcohol while they are pregnant. Additionally, females can be unknowingly pregnant for four to six weeks, during which alcohol can still affect the fetus. If a female thinks there is a chance of pregnancy, alcohol should be avoided until a pregnancy test has been taken. If you just found out you are pregnant and drank alcohol prior to discovering your pregnancy, talk with your medical practitioner as soon as possible about potential options. If you currently consume alcoholic beverages and are at risk of becoming pregnant, you must be acutely aware and conscious of early pregnancy symptoms. Furthermore, if you have been drinking during your pregnancy, it is never too late to stop drinking. Brain growth takes place throughout pregnancy and the sooner you stop drinking, the safer your baby will be. Unfortunately, females struggling with alcohol addiction may have a difficult time not drinking. If you or someone you know is pregnant and struggling with alcohol dependency, seek help immediately by getting in touch with treatment/support groups, specialists, and counselors in your area Remember, whichever substances enter a mother’s body enter their baby’s as well. Don't take any chances with your child's life!

Concluding Remarks

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is directly caused by prenatal alcohol exposure and leads to many different symptoms in children. There is no “safe” level of alcohol consumption while pregnant and any amount of alcohol can seriously and permanently damage both the physical and mental development of a child. Therefore, it is important to avoid alcohol in all stages of pregnancy, including the early stages when a mother may not be aware that she is pregnant. If you or someone you know if struggling with drinking while pregnant, it is important to seek out help immediately to help avoid the many irreversible problems in a child that result from drinking while pregnant. There are many different treatment options that can help a child with FAS reach their full potential. Medical professionals can help make a diagnosis and come up with treatment plans that may include different medicines and therapy options to help with symptoms. Again, pregnant mothers should be aware of the dangers of drinking alcohol while pregnant and avoid it at all costs to help ensure they have a healthy child.  

References

  1. National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  2. “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine
  3.  “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  4. “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research
  5. “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome - National Library of Medicine - PubMed Health.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine
  6. Streissguth, Ann P., and Kieran Omalley. “Neuropsychiatric Implications and Long-Term Consequences of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.” Seminars in Clinical Neuropsychiatry, vol. 5, no. 3, 2000, pp. 177–190., doi:10.1053/scnp.2000.6729.
  7. Streissguth, Ann P., et al. “Risk Factors for Adverse Life Outcomes in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects.” Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, vol. 25, no. 4, 2004, pp. 228–238., doi:10.1097/00004703-200408000-00002.

Last updated: 16 October 2018.