Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition in a child that results from alcohol exposure during the mother's pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome causes brain damage and growth problems. Most commonly, problems caused by fetal alcohol syndrome vary from child to child, but defects caused by this syndrome are not reversible. 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. If you suspect your child has fetal alcohol syndrome, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis may help to reduce problems such as learning difficulties and behavioral issues.
When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, some of that alcohol easily passes across the placenta to the fetus. The body of a developing fetus doesn’t process alcohol the same way as an adult does. The alcohol is more concentrated in the fetus, and it can prevent enough nutrition and oxygen from getting to the fetus’s vital organs. Damage can be done in the first few weeks of pregnancy when a woman might not yet know that she is pregnant. The risk increases if the mother is a heavy drinker. According to numerous studies, alcohol use appears to be most harmful during the first three months of pregnancy. However, consumption of alcohol any time during pregnancy can be harmful.
Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
A baby exposed to alcohol in the womb may have:
- a head that's smaller than average
- poor growth – they may be smaller than average at birth and grow slowly as they get older
- distinctive facial features – such as small eyes, a thin upper lip, and a smooth area between the nose and upper lip
- movement and co-ordination problems, known as cerebral palsy
- learning difficulties – such as problems with thinking, speech, social skills, timekeeping, maths or memory
- mood, attention or behavioural problems – such as autism-like behaviour or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- problems with the liver, kidneys, heart or other organs
Alcohol and Pregnancy
Alcohol is the leading preventable cause of birth defects in the U.S. In the womb, a baby doesn't have a fully developed liver that can process or break down alcohol, so it can easily get to and damage the baby's organs. Some of the most severe problems happen when a pregnant woman drinks in the first trimester, when the baby's brain starts to develop. However, the second and third trimesters aren’t safe either. The brain is still developing then, and this process can be interrupted by even moderate amounts of alcohol.
How is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosed?
The earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome. Make sure to talk to your doctor if you think your child might have FAS. Let your doctor know if you drank while you were pregnant. A physical exam of the baby may show a heart murmur or some other heart problems. As the baby matures, there may be other signs that help confirm the diagnosis. These include:
- slow rate of growth
- abnormal facial features or bone growth
- hearing and vision problems
- slow language acquisition
- small head size
- poor coordination
There's no cure or specific treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome. The physical defects and mental deficiencies usually persist for a lifetime. However, early intervention services may help reduce some of the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome and may prevent some secondary disabilities. Intervention services may involve:
- A team that includes a special education teacher, a speech therapist, physical and occupational therapists, and a psychologist
- Early intervention to help with walking, talking and social skills
- Special services in school to help with learning issues
- Medications to help with some symptoms
- Medical care for health problems, such as vision problems or heart abnormalities
- Addressing alcohol and other substance use problems
- Vocational and life skills training
You can avoid fetal alcohol syndrome by avoiding drinking alcohol during pregnancy. If you’re a woman with a drinking problem who wants to get pregnant, seek help from a doctor. If you’re a light or social drinker, don’t drink if you think you might become pregnant anytime soon. Remember, the effects of alcohol can make a mark during the first few weeks of a pregnancy and cause many problems along the way!