Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

(Alcohol in Pregnancy; Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy; FAS)

Definition

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) belongs to a group of health problems called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). It happens when a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy. The alcohol can cause birth and growth defects in the baby. These defects make up FAS.

Causes ^

Alcohol can cross from the mother's blood to the baby's blood. Even a small amount of any type can harm a growing baby.

Blood Traveling Through Mother's Placenta to Baby
baby fetus placenta

Alcohol travels through this path and affects the baby's development, particularly the heart and brain.

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Risk Factors ^

Things that raise your baby's chance of FAS are:

Symptoms ^

Birth and growth problems depend on when the exposure happened and how much was consumed.

Babies with FAS may have:

  • Low birth weight
  • Small size and delayed growth
  • Small head
  • Small eyes
  • Short, flat nose
  • Flat cheeks
  • Small jaws
  • Misshapen ears
  • Thin upper lip
  • Shaking
  • Sight and hearing problems
  • Heart problems
  • Small, unusually formed brain
  • Problems seeing

As the infant grows, other symptoms may develop, including:

  • Difficulty eating and sleeping
  • Delayed speech
  • Learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disability
  • Poor coordination
  • Behavior problems
  • Lack of impulse control
  • Problems getting along with other children

Children do not outgrow these problems. Teens and adults often have social and emotional problems. They may also have:

  • Problems at school
  • Problems keeping a job
  • Trouble living on one's own
  • Mental health problems
  • Alcohol or drug dependence
  • Anxiety problems
  • Anger problems
  • Legal problems

Diagnosis ^

You will be asked about your alcohol intake while pregnant. The child's growth will be checked. A physical exam will be done. FAS may be found due to:

  • History of alcohol use
  • Facial features
  • Slow growth
  • Nervous system problems

Finding FAS early can help your child get proper care.

Treatment ^

There is no one treatment for FAS. Early intervention is helpful, as well as a supportive, nurturing home. The doctor may advise hearing and vision tests, as well as testing for any other health problems from FAS.

Social Services

Professional support helps a family cope with caring for a child with special needs. This includes parent training. You can learn ways to handle behavioral problems and stress.

Special Education

Programs designed to meet your child's needs can help with learning. Messages may need to be repeated. Tasks may need to be broken down into smaller steps.

Supportive Environment

A supportive environment:

  • Provides direction and structure
  • Keeps to routines
  • Uses basic rules, limits, and consequences
  • Praising good behaviors
  • Doesn't use threats and violence. These raise the risk that the child will learn to react in a the same way. Your child may need special training to learn ways to handle anger.

Prevention ^

To prevent FAS:

  • Do not drink alcohol if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
  • Avoid heavy drinking when not using birth control. Damage can happen before you even know you are pregnant.
  • Use birth control until you are able to quit drinking.
RESOURCES:

Kids Health—Nemours Foundation
http://www.kidshealth.org

March of Dimes
https://www.marchofdimes.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Greater Toronto Area Intergroup
http://aatoronto.org

Women's Health Matters
http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca

REFERENCES:

Chaudhuri JD. Alcohol and the developing fetus—A review. Med Sci Monit. 2000;6(5):1031-1041.

Drinking and your pregnancy. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/DrinkingPregnancy_HTML/pregnancy.htm. Published 2006. Accessed July 2, 2018.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114397/Fetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorder. Updated November 6, 2017. Accessed July 2, 2018.

Nayak RB, Murthy P. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Indian Pediatr. 2008;45(12):977-983.

Prenatal exposure to alcohol. Alcohol Res Health. 2000;24(1):32-41.

Thackray H, Tifft C. Fetal alcohol syndrome. Pediatr Rev. 2001;22(2):47-55.

Last reviewed June 2018 by Kari Kassir, MD  Last Updated: 7/2/2018