Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome


While most people are aware that there is a list of items to not drink or eat while pregnant, some may not be convinced of its validity or why the items are said to be bad for you while you are pregnant. Sandwich meats and some soft cheeses are not appropriate for pregnancy, but for a different reason than alcohol.


Consumption of alcohol during pregnancy has the ability to cause what is known as fetal alcohol syndrome. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition that a child may develop in the womb during the pregnancy of the mother1https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/facts.html. This condition can cause brain damage that hinders the growth of the fetus and child when born. The effects of fetal alcohol syndrome can vary in severity from child to child and not every child will have all or every effect that another child may have because of it. The effects that are caused by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are not reversible.


Fetal Alcohol Syndrome falls under the umbrella of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.


There are four primary types of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders:


  • Neurobehavioral Disorders Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE)
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrom (FAS)

Causes of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome


There are constant debates about the amount of alcohol that certain groups or individuals believe can be safely consumed during pregnancy. However, the reasons that Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders happen are not contested. They occur because an individual consumes alcohol while they are pregnant. The condition is caused by alcohol consumption and results in the child being born with brain damage, birth defects, and growth-related issues.


There are different theories about how early in the development of the fetus alcohol can impact growth and development. Some of those theories suggest that alcohol-related issues can begin at conception, so it is recommended that women do not drink if they are attempting to conceive.


Other theories suggest that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome does not occur until the alcohol is consumed after week three of a pregnancy. Because this timing is unclear — and the amount of alcohol that is “safe” to be consumed during pregnancy is also unclear, most doctors and medical professionals will say that there is no amount of alcohol that is safe during pregnancy. Pregnant women may see celebrities or role models drinking alcohol during their pregnancy because of the belief that a small amount of alcohol is safe, but when it comes to this condition, it is better to be safe than sorry.


Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Celebrities


Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Britney Spears, and Kate Hudson may have avoided Fetal Alcohol Syndrome during their pregnancy even if they consumed alcohol, but there is no way to control who gets the condition. The only way to prevent the condition is by not consuming alcohol during a pregnancy2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472723/.


Depending on the severity, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can be difficult to diagnose at birth, but if there are issues in the following weeks and the mother was known to consume alcohol during pregnancy, a doctor may attempt tests. There are no blood tests that can be used to diagnose FAS. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome cannot be diagnosed before a baby is born, but if a doctor is aware of the mother’s habits during pregnancy, the child can be observed in the weeks following birth for signs. Most diagnoses of the condition will come in the following months and years of the child’s life.

Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome


While a key factor in the effects that are caused by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are those associated with brain damage and growth development, there are some physical signs of FAS that occur as well.


Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Face:


  • a small head
  • below-average weight and height
  • thin upper lip
  • wide-set eyes
  • lack of ridge between the upper lip and nose
  • finger or limb deformities
  • heart and kidney defects
  • vision and hearing issues


Other symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome include:


  • hyperactivity and lack of focus
  • learning disabilities
  • intellectual disabilities
  • social issues
  • issues related to cognitive function and thinking
  • delayed speech
  • delayed movement
  • impacted coordination
  • seizures

Effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome


Children diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome at a young age will often need additional support and services in their life and at school.


Young children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome may:


  • be more likely to be victims of bullying
  • need an IEP or 504 education plan
  • miss out on class time for their extra services at school (occupational, physical, speech, SPED)
  • be required to take medication for their behavior and attention deficit.
  • have issues with social skills and getting along with other children their age
  • need constant support during class time, services offered by a paraprofessional
  • need extra help specifically in reading and math
  • need extra time for school and homework assignments
  • need special seating because of their hearing and vision problems
  • need assistive devices

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Adulthood


Those with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome will not always be children and those with FAS do not outgrow their condition. The physical effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome  do not go away. They will always likely be smaller and shorter in stature and their head will always be slightly smaller if it has been since birth. They will always likely have organ defects and wide-set eyes. The effects of brain damage will also always be present as well. They may just affect their life differently as they age. The adult may not receive speech services and occupational services as they are no longer in school, but there are long term effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome that will affect the individual well into adulthood and the rest of their life.


Long Term Effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome:


  • adults with the condition have a high rate of arrest and incarceration.
  • studies have shown that half of those with FAS will have some sort of issue with the law during their lifetime.
  • they will likely have a difficult time keeping a regular and steady job. A study done stated that 79% of those diagnosed with FAS have a hard time maintaining employment.
  • they have had a hard time finding reliable housing and keeping it
  • they have issues with money management


Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Treatment


If those with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are able to receive the sort of treatment and assistance that they need, they are able to live somewhat independent and stable lives. Many of those with FAS do not receive the extra help that they need because of resources and access, but those that do fare significantly better and are generally able to live productive, safe lives.

References:  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

  1. Adebiyi BO, Mukumbang FC, Beytell AM. To what extent is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder considered in policy-related documents in South Africa? A document review. Health Res Policy Syst. 2019 Apr 29;17(1):46. [PubMed]
  2. Akison LK, Moritz KM, Reid N. Adverse reproductive outcomes associated with fetal alcohol exposure: a systematic review. Reproduction. 2019 Apr 01;157(4):329-343. [PubMed]
  3. Brown JM, Bland R, Jonsson E, Greenshaw AJ. The Standardization of Diagnostic Criteria for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD): Implications for Research, Clinical Practice and Population Health. Can J Psychiatry. [PubMed]
  4. Department of Health Strategy Unit. Alcohol harm reduction project: interim analytical report.
  5. Maier SE, West JR. Drinking patterns and alcohol related birth defects. Alcohol Res Health []
  6. Rasmussen C. Executive functioning and working memory in FAS. Alcohol Clin Expl Res 2005;29: 1359-67 [PubMed] []
  7. Stoler JM, Holmes LB. Under recognition of prenatal alcohol effects of infants of known alcohol abusing women. J Paediatr 1999;135: 430-6 [PubMed] []
  8. Russel M. New assessment tools for risk assessment during pregnancy T-ACE TWEAK and others. Alcohol Res Health 1994;18: 55-61 []
  9. Rasmussen C. Executive functioning and working memory in fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Alcohol Clin Expl Res 2005;29: 1359-67 [PubMed] []
  10. Mackinnon DP, William-Avery RM, Pentz MA. Youth belief and knowledge about the risks of drinking while pregnant. Public Health Rep []
  11. Tran TD, Jackson HD, Horn, KH, Goodlett CR. Vitamin E does not protect against neonatal ethanol induced cerebellar damage []
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