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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can occur in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects may include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities with possible lifelong implications. A person with FASD often has a combination of these problems.

FASD covers other terms such as

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): This is the only diagnosis given by doctors and is the most identifiable and serious disorder under the FASD umbrella. However, it only accounts for approximately 25% of all alcohol-related effects.
  • Alcohol-related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND): ARND describes individuals with functional or cognitive impairments linked to prenatal alcohol exposure. These impairments include decreased head size at birth, structural brain abnormalities, and a pattern of behavioral and mental abnormalities.
  • Alcohol-related Birth Defects (ARBD): ARBD describes the physical defects linked to prenatal alcohol exposure including heart, skeletal, kidney, ear, and eye malformations.
  • Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE): FAE is a term that has been popularly used to describe alcohol-exposed individuals whose condition does not meet the full criteria for an FAS diagnosis.

FAS Facts

  • FASD is the leading known preventable cause of mental retardation and birth defects.
  • FASD is 100% preventable.
  • FASD affects 1 in 100 infants each year, more than Autism, and Downs Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Cystic Fibrosis, Spina Bifida and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) combined.
  • FASD a leading known cause of learning disabilities.
  • FAS and FASD are not genetic disorders. Women with FAS or affected by FASD have healthy babies if they do not drink alcohol during their pregnancy.
  • FASD can affect anyone regardless of ethnicity, income or educational level.

How much alcohol during pregnancy is too much?

There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. There is no safe period during pregnancy to drink alcohol and there is no safe type of alcohol to drink. Women who are planning a pregnancy should stop drinking as they could become pregnant and not know for a few weeks. Nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned. If you drink and become pregnant, stop as soon as possible. This will help protect your baby. It is never too late to stop drinking.

In the United States, almost 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. This reminds us of the importance of educating all women of childbearing age about the risks of alcohol use during pregnancy.

When a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy, the alcohol passes through the placenta to the baby. This can cause many serious problems including miscarriage, stillbirth, and the range of lifelong disorders, known as FASDs. Children with FASDs might have the following characteristics and behaviors:

  • Abnormal facial features, such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip (this ridge is called the philtrum)
  • Small head size
  • Shorter-than-average height
  • Low body weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty in school (especially with math)
  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech and language delays
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills
  • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Problems with the heart, kidney, or bones

Can FAS be prevented?

Yes! Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders are 100% preventable. Women who do not drink during pregnancy will not have babies with FAS or FASD.

How do I Get Help?

If you are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant, but cannot stop drinking, please get help. Protect yourself and your baby. Contact your doctor or local alcohol treatment center. Other resources include:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a treatment facility locator to help people find drug and alcohol treatment programs in their area.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous: AA is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. Use the AA Meeting Finder to locate a program near you.

Other Links

CDC Info on FAS
National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
SAMHSA FASD Center for Excellence
National Library of Medicine FAS Page
Double ARC