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What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)?

By O. Wallace
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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In the US, the number one cause of preventable physical and mental birth defects is alcohol consumption during pregnancy. The term Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) is used as a general description of children affected by their mother’s use of alcohol while they were in the womb. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) falls under this category and is used to diagnose a specific group of physical and developmental problems that can affect a child’s ability to function normally. It is estimated that one in every 750 babies are born with this syndrome annually in the US.

Children with FAS may exhibit some or all of the typical symptoms in varying degrees. This may be due in part to the level of alcohol consumption they were exposed to and how early in gestation they were exposed to it. Because alcohol passes through the placenta with little difficulty, babies can be exposed to potentially high levels and are unable to process it as adults do. Different mothers process alcohol in different ways, which may also affect how seriously the alcohol can damage a fetus.

A related but slightly less serious condition is Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE), in which affected children are afflicted with fewer and less serious disabilities. Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) is a newer category that designates children who have only the behavioral and emotional problems associated with FAS, and none of the physical symptoms.

The main characteristics of FAS include many different syndrome or disabilities. At birth, a baby may be a lower than average birthweight and have a smaller head. As an infant, he or she may have sleeping or sucking problems, leading to a failure to thrive. This means that a child doesn’t put on adequate weight or grow in height along the average height and weight scales. In addition, there may be complications with the organs or epilepsy.

Babies and children with FAS may display common abnormalities in facial structure, such as small eye openings, flatter cheekbones and an underdeveloped groove connecting the upper lip to the nose. Developmentally, children may lack coordination and have trouble with fine motor skills.

The emotional problems associated with this condition can have the biggest impact on affected children. Studies show that many of the disabilities become magnified as the child ages and he or she increasingly has trouble fitting into society. Children may have problems making and maintaining relationships and relating in group situations. Some children may not show signs of an imagination or curiosity, unlike other children. Grasping easy concepts like time and money may be very difficult, and FAS children can be particularly unskilled at problem solving.

Behaviorally, children with FAS can exhibit hyperactivity, anxiety and stubbornness, among many other debilitating disabilities and traits. Because there is such a range of symptoms and signs for this disorder, it is difficult for doctors to diagnose it. The individual conditions associated with the syndrome may be treated with varying degrees of success.

This condition is completely avoidable by not consuming alcohol during pregnancy. Many women who do not know they are pregnant inadvertently expose their fetuses early in the first trimester by consuming alcohol. Because this is the most formative period of gestation, women who are trying to become pregnant or are not using birth control should abstain from alcohol unless they are positive that they are not pregnant. Although many cultures don’t discourage a little alcohol during pregnancy, and some have come out strongly for the safety of a glass of wine late in pregnancy, doctors agree that no alcohol at all is best for the baby, and the only way to guarantee that a child will not be born with FAS.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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