Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis

Fetal alcohol syndrome begins before a baby is born as the result of the mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy. This can result in a range of abnormalities in the baby and even a range of disorders called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. These disorders last the lifetime of the person, but they are completely preventable.

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Dr. Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS


Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) occurs in a fetus as the effect of alcohol use on the part of the mother. A developing fetus can incur FAS during any trimester of the pregnancy.

The physical symptoms of FAS can be seen in newborns. But the resulting mental disabilities are apparent throughout child development.

Fetal alcohol effects may have a range of severity depending on the amount and duration of alcohol consumption on the mother’s part. Pediatrics can address these symptoms but cannot cure them.

Fetal alcohol syndrome can result in:

  • abnormalities with facial features
  • disabilities
  • learning disabilities
  • behavioral problems

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is actually one syndrome among many of a group of disorders called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).

While there is a range of severity with regards to FAS, it is considered the most severe type of the different fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

In general, fetal alcohol syndrome creates problems with a person’s central nervous system and minor facial abnormalities.

This can result in difficulties with:

  • hearing
  • communication
  • vision
  • attention span
  • learning
  • memory
  • social skills

Physical symptoms of FAS can include:

  • thin upper lip
  • small head
  • small eyes

Less severe instances of FAS are generally referred to as partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS).

How Alcohol Use During Pregnancy Can Lead To FAS

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fetal alcohol syndrome can result from any amount of alcohol use by the mother during her pregnancy.

However, FAS is commonly the result of heavy drinking throughout the pregnancy or isolated incidents of binge drinking.

When a woman who is pregnant drinks alcohol, the baby receives it through the umbilical cord. Alcohol affects the baby in all the ways it affects the mother, but the baby’s brain is still developing, so the effects can be very damaging.

Risk Factors For Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Heavy drinking and binge drinking are the biggest risk factors when you are pregnant.

However, according to the CDC, it is not known if there is a safe amount of alcohol that you can drink during pregnancy, because everything you consume is passed to the baby through the placenta. It is generally believed that any amount of alcohol can potentially be harmful.

It is also potentially harmful to drink alcohol during any trimester of pregnancy. Additionally, there are no types of alcohol that are “safer” than others. Beer is as harmful as whiskey.

Other Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders describe a variety of disorders that can result from drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

FASDs must be addressed through pediatrics and can sometimes require special education or social services for adolescents. They may also require parent training for the mother and father, but they cannot be cured.

Any one of these FASDs can create:

  • developmental disabilities
  • growth problems
  • health problems
  • mental health problems
  • poor coordination

Alcohol-Related Birth Defects

Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD) can describe damage to organs and bodily structures including:

  • bones
  • hearing
  • kidneys
  • heart

Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated With Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE) describes one or more of a few psychological difficulties a child may experience as a result of fetal alcohol exposure.

This could include trouble with:

  • memory
  • learning
  • planning
  • getting along with others
  • irritability
  • life skills

Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder

Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) describes intellectual disabilities that can affect a child’s learning and behavior.

ARND can sometimes result in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Other areas of impairment can include:

  • judgment
  • impulse control
  • memory
  • math

Other Dangers Of Alcohol Abuse For Pregnant Women

Childbearing women who abuse alcohol not only increase risk factors for their baby but for themselves and can endanger their own healthcare.

Drinking large amounts of alcohol either through binge drinking or prolonged consumption increases the risk of irreversible damage to the brain and internal organs.

Additional health-related conditions from alcohol abuse can include cancer, heart disease, and loss of memory or motor control.

Treatment Programs For Alcohol Addiction

Treatment programs for alcohol addiction are available in a variety of forms. Some are outpatient programs through a counseling center and others involve medical treatment and alcohol detox.

Good treatment programs incorporate evidence-based therapy with approaches that help you discover the reasons why you engage in alcohol abuse.

These approaches could include:

Find A Rehab Program For Alcohol Abuse Today

Good healthcare for you and your unborn baby during pregnancy means quitting substance abuse, and there are rehab centers that can help.

Call the Bedrock Recovery Center helpline today to learn about our intensive, effective alcohol treatment programs.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/facts.html
  2. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus https://medlineplus.gov/fetalalcoholspectrumdisorders.html
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/fetal-alcohol-exposure

Written by Bedrock Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Bedrock Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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