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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome | Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Published on August 19, 2021
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome | Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is one of several conditions that can occur in a child as a result of exposure to alcohol during the mother’s pregnancy. The effects of FAS vary in severity but can include physical defects, brain damage, and behavioral problems. 

There is no cure for FAS and the resulting physical defects are often irreversible. However, alerting a doctor as soon as possible can help reduce the severity of some of the cognitive and behavioral effects. 

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs)

Alcohol use is dangerous during any stage of pregnancy but is highest during the first trimester. Blood alcohol levels in a fetus are higher than the mother’s because the fetus metabolizes alcohol at a much slower rate.   

Any amount of alcohol use poses a risk for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). FASDs are a group of conditions caused by fetal alcohol exposure. 

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders include:

  • fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
  • partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND)
  • alcohol related birth defects (ARBD)
  • neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE)

The most common of these conditions is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS can result in developmental delays, physical defects, brain damage, and behavioral difficulties. 

What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

The placenta is a vital organ that develops during pregnancy that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the fetus. If you drink alcohol while pregnant, it can cross the placenta and enter the fetus’ bloodstream.

Drinking alcohol can prevent the developing fetus from receiving the oxygen and nutrition it needs. This can interfere with the development of the baby’s vital organs, blood vessels, and facial features. 

This increases the risk of brain damage, which can lead to problems with learning, memory, attention, communication, vision, and hearing. 

Despite the risks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported an increase in alcohol consumption in pregnant women. 

Symptoms Of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome affects each individual differently and the symptoms can vary from mild to severe. Children with FAS may struggle with lifelong disabilities, including social, learning, mental health, and behavioral issues.

If you suspect symptoms of FAS, contacting your primary care doctor or pediatrician may minimize the severity of developmental disabilities. 

Physical Defects

Individuals with FAS may have distinctive physical abnormalities and growth problems. 

Physical symptoms of FAS may include:

  • small eyes
  • thin upper lip
  • short and upturned nose
  • smooth area between nose and upper lip (smooth philtrum)
  • joint, limb, or finger defects
  • small head and brain size
  • vision/hearing difficulties
  • heart defects
  • decreased physical growth 

Central Nervous System Defects

Alcohol can interrupt brain development and cause other central nervous system (CNS) problems. 

Central nervous system defects may include the following:

  • coordination problems
  • intellectual disabilities
  • learning disabilities
  • memory impairment
  • short attention span
  • difficulties with reasoning/problem-solving
  • poor judgment
  • hyperactivity
  • mood swings

Some of these symptoms are similar to symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Research has found that children with FAS are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with ADHD. 

Social & Behavioral Difficulties

Children with FAS may experience severe difficulties coping with daily life, which can interfere with their social growth and education. 

Social and behavioral difficulties may include:

  • difficulty in school
  • struggling to get along with peers
  • low social skills 
  • difficulty adapting to new situations
  • impulse control problems
  • trouble completing or switching tasks
  • difficulty planning and attaining goals

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Treatment

It is vital to contact a healthcare professional or social services as soon as you suspect fetal alcohol syndrome symptoms. 

Early Intervention Services

Getting a diagnosis and access to early intervention services can significantly improve their quality of life. A child with FAS thrives best when they are in a supportive environment at home and in school. 

Although there is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome, early intervention can help minimize developmental and behavioral challenges. Early intervention services can help children 3 years of age and younger learn necessary skills. 

Public schools are often able to evaluate older children and provide access to special education services. 

Treatment Services

Treatment for FAS may include:

  • medication
  • behavioral therapy
  • educational therapy
  • speech therapy
  • physical therapy
  • parent training

Every child is different and they may respond to any combination of these treatment approaches. An appropriate FAS treatment program will focus on the child’s pediatric needs and utilize their strengths. 

During treatment, a trained therapist will closely monitor the individual and make adjustments to the treatment plan as necessary. 

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

Alcohol abuse during pregnancy poses a risk for the developing baby and the mother. If alcohol is difficult to give up during pregnancy, there may be a risk of dependence or addiction. 

If you or a loved one is pregnant and struggling with alcohol addiction, help is available. Professional treatment programs can help you learn to cope without alcohol and other substances. 

Inpatient and outpatient alcohol addiction treatment services may include:

If you would like more information on alcohol addiction treatment options, please contact Ark Behavioral Health today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

BMC Psychiatry - FASD And ADHD - Are They Related And How?
Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) - FASDs - Treatments
Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) - Basics About FASDs
Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) - Data & Statistics

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