Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

What is fetal alcohol syndrome?

Women who drink alcohol during pregnancy can give birth to babies with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, sometimes known as FASDs. FASD is the umbrella term for a variety of disorders. These disorders can be mild or severe and cause physical and mental birth defects. Types of FASD include:

  • fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
  • partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • alcohol-related birth defects
  • alcohol-induced neurodevelopmental disorder
  • neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure

FAS is a severe form of the condition. People with FAS may have problems with vision, hearing, memory, attention span, and their ability to learn and communicate. While the defects vary from one person to another, the damage is usually permanent.

What are the causes of fetal alcohol syndrome?

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, some of this alcohol easily passes through the placenta to the fetus. The body of a developing fetus does not process alcohol the same way an adult does. Alcohol is more concentrated in the fetus and can prevent adequate nutrition and oxygen from getting to the fetus’ vital organs.

The damage can be done during the first few weeks of pregnancy, when a woman may not yet know she is pregnant. The risk is increased if the mother is a heavy drinker.

According to many studies, alcohol use appears to be most harmful during the first trimester of pregnancy. However, alcohol consumption at any time during pregnancy can be harmful, according to guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What are the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome?

Because fetal alcohol syndrome covers a wide variety of problems, there are many possible symptoms. The severity of these symptoms ranges from mild to severe and may include:

  • a small head
  • a smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose, small and wide-set eyes, a very thin upper lip, or other abnormal facial features
  • average height and weight
  • hyperactivity
  • lack of focus
  • poor coordination
  • delayed development and problems in thought, speech, movement, and social skills
  • bad decision
  • vision or hearing problems
  • learning difficulties
  • mentally handicapped
  • heart problems
  • kidney defects and abnormalities
  • deformed limbs or fingers
  • mood

How is fetal alcohol syndrome diagnosed?

The earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome. If you think your child may have FAS, talk to your doctor. Tell your doctor if you drank while pregnant.

A physical exam of the baby may show a heart murmur or other heart problems. As the baby matures, there may be other signs to help confirm the diagnosis. These include:

  • slow growth rate
  • abnormal facial features or bone growth
  • hearing and vision problems
  • slow language acquisition
  • small head size
  • poor coordination

To diagnose a person with FAS, the doctor must determine that they have slower than normal facial features, abnormal facial features, and central nervous system problems. These nervous system problems can be physical or behavioral. They may present as hyperactivity, lack of coordination, or difficulty in focusing or learning.

What are the treatments for fetal alcohol syndrome?

While FAS is incurable, there are treatments for some symptoms. The earlier the diagnosis, the more progress can be made. Depending on the symptoms a child with FAS exhibits, they may need multiple doctor or specialist visits. Special education and social services can help very young children. For example, speech therapists may work with young children to help them learn to speak.

at home

Children with FAS will benefit from a stable and loving home. They may be more sensitive than the average child to disruptions in routine. Children with FAS are most likely to develop problems with violence and substance abuse later in life, especially if they experience violence or abuse at home. These children reward a regular routine, simple rules to follow, and positive behavior.


There are no drugs that specifically treat FAS. However, some medications can address symptoms.

These drugs are:

  • antidepressants to treat problems with sadness and negativity
  • stimulants to treat lack of focus, hyperactivity, and other behavioral problems
  • neuroleptics to treat anxiety and aggression
  • antianxiety medications to relieve anxiety


Behavior training can also help. For example, friendship education teaches children social skills to interact with their peers. Executive function training can develop skills such as self-control, reasoning, and an understanding of cause and effect. Children with FAS may also need academic assistance. For example, a math teacher might help a child struggling in school.

Parents and siblings may also need help coping with the difficulties this condition can cause. This help can come through talk therapy or support groups. Parents can also receive parent education tailored to their child’s needs. Parent education teaches you how to best interact and care for your child.

alternative treatments

Some parents and their children seek alternative treatments outside the medical establishment. These include healing practices such as massage and acupuncture (the insertion of fine needles into major body areas). Alternative treatments also include movement techniques such as exercise or yoga.

How can I prevent fetal alcohol syndrome?

You can prevent fetal alcohol syndrome by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. If you are a woman with an alcohol problem who wishes to become pregnant, consult a doctor. If you’re a light or social drinker, don’t drink if you think you might be pregnant soon. Remember, the effects of alcohol can be a sign in the first few weeks of pregnancy. Visit these blogs for more tips and information on fetal alcohol syndrome.


Fetal alcohol syndrome. (2014).

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). (2015).

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Fetal alcohol syndrome.

Williams JF, et al. (2015). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

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