Fetal alcohol syndrome
Fetal alcohol syndrome
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition that results from alcohol exposure during pregnancy. Problems that may be caused by fetal alcohol syndrome include physical deformities, mental retardation, learning disorders, vision difficulties and behavioral problems.
The problems caused by fetal alcohol syndrome vary from child to child, but defects caused by fetal alcohol syndrome are irreversible.
There is no amount of alcohol that's known to be safe to consume during pregnancy. If you drink during pregnancy, you place your baby at risk of fetal alcohol syndrome.
If you suspect your child has fetal alcohol syndrome, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis may reduce the risk of problems, including learning difficulties and substance abuse.
Fetal alcohol syndrome isn't a single birth defect. It's a cluster of related problems and the most severe of a group of consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure. Collectively, the range of disorders is known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).
Fetal alcohol syndrome is a common — yet preventable — cause of mental retardation. The severity of mental problems varies, with some children experiencing them to a far greater degree than others.
Signs of fetal alcohol syndrome may include:
The facial features seen with fetal alcohol syndrome may also occur in normal, healthy children. Distinguishing normal facial features from those of fetal alcohol syndrome requires expertise.
Doctors may use other terms to describe some of the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. An alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder is a mental or behavioral impairment that occurs as a result of fetal exposure to alcohol. Alcohol-related birth defects are physical defects that occur from fetal alcohol exposure.
When to see a doctor
Because early diagnosis may help reduce the risk of long-term problems for children with FAS, let your child's doctor know if you drank alcohol while you were pregnant. Don't wait for problems to arise before seeking help.
If you've adopted a child or are providing foster care, you may not know if your child's biological mother drank alcohol while pregnant — and it may not initially occur to you that your child may have fetal alcohol syndrome. However, if your child has learning and behavioral problems, talk with your child's doctor so that the underlying cause might be identified.
When you're pregnant and drink alcohol, it enters your bloodstream and reaches your developing fetus by crossing the placenta. Because a fetus metabolizes alcohol more slowly than an adult does, your developing baby's blood alcohol concentrations are higher than those in your body. Alcohol also interferes with the delivery of oxygen and optimal nutrition to your baby's developing tissues and organs, including the brain.
The more you drink while pregnant, the greater the risk to your unborn baby. The risk is present at any time during pregnancy. However, impairment of facial features, the heart and other organs, including the bones, and the central nervous system may occur as a result of drinking alcohol during the first trimester. That's when these parts of the fetus are in key stages of development. In the early weeks of the first trimester, many women may not be aware that they're pregnant.
Although doctors aren't sure how much alcohol you'd have to drink to place your baby at risk, they do know that the more you drink, the greater the chance of problems. Because there's no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, don't drink alcohol if you are or think you are pregnant or you're attempting to become pregnant. You could put your baby at risk even before you realize you're pregnant.
Preparing for your appointment
Call your child's doctor for an appointment if you see any symptoms that concern you. Your child's doctor will let you know if your child needs to see a specialist, such as a doctor specializing in heart problems (cardiologist) if your child has a heart issue.
Because appointments can be brief, and there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to arrive well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time with your child's doctor. For fetal alcohol syndrome, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your child's doctor, don't hesitate to ask any additional questions that may occur to you during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Although doctors can't diagnose fetal alcohol syndrome before a baby is born, they can assess the health of mother and baby during pregnancy. If you report the timing and amount of alcohol consumption, your obstetrician or other health care provider can help determine the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome.
If you let your child's doctor know that you drank alcoholic beverages during your pregnancy, he or she can watch for signs and symptoms of this syndrome in your child's initial weeks, months and years of life. To make a diagnosis, doctors will assess:
Doctors may refer a child with possible fetal alcohol syndrome to a medical genetics specialist to rule out other disorders with similar signs and symptoms.
If one child in your family is diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, it's important to evaluate his or her siblings to determine whether they also have fetal alcohol syndrome.
Treatments and drugs
There's no cure or specific treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome. The physical defects and mental deficiencies typically persist for a lifetime. Heart abnormalities may require surgery. Learning problems may be helped by special services in school. Parents often benefit from counseling to help the family with a child's behavioral problems.
Coping and support
The psychological and emotional problems associated with fetal alcohol syndrome can be difficult to manage. Families and children with fetal alcohol syndrome may benefit greatly from the support of professionals and other families who have experience with fetal alcohol syndrome. Ask your doctor or public health nurse for local sources of support for families and children with fetal alcohol syndrome. If you know or suspect you have a problem with alcohol or other substances, ask a professional, such as a doctor or a psychologist, for advice.
As a parent of a child with fetal alcohol syndrome, you may find the following suggestions helpful in dealing with behavioral problems associated with the syndrome:
A stable, nurturing home is the single most important factor in protecting children with FAS from some of the problems they're at risk of later in life, including drug abuse, dropping out of school and encounters with the juvenile justice system.
If you've given birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome, you may benefit from substance abuse counseling and treatment programs that can help you overcome your misuse of alcohol.
Doctors haven't identified a safe level of alcohol that a pregnant woman can consume. But experts do know that FAS is completely preventable if women don't drink alcohol during pregnancy.
These guidelines can help prevent fetal alcohol syndrome:
Last Updated: 2011-05-21
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