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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome And Alcohol Abuse

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 11, 2019

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is part of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) that can result in behavioral and learning issues, physical malformations, and other mental and physical problems. It is important to understand all of the risks and consequences of this syndrome and the best ways to avoid it.

Fetal alcohol syndrome was first brought to light in 1981 when the Surgeon General cautioned women against drinking while pregnant. Before this, alcohol was typically seen as safe for pregnant women. In fact, at one point drinking while pregnant was even encouraged.

The types of disorders that fall under the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders include:

  • partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure
  • alcohol-related birth defects
  • fetal alcohol syndrome
  • alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder

FAS is typically the most severe form of disorder under the FASD umbrella. Defects of this condition will be different for each person. However, they are generally permanent and can cause lifelong mental and physical problems.

What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Drinking alcohol while pregnant is the primary cause of fetal alcohol syndrome. When a pregnant woman ingests alcohol, some of it passes directly through the placenta to the fetus. A fetus cannot breakdown alcohol quickly and therefore is exposed to a higher amount of alcohol for longer than an adult.

When alcohol has passed through the placenta to the fetus, it can cause oxygen and nutrition to be cut off from the fetus. This can result in a number of health problems later down the road.

Alcohol tends to be most harmful in the first three months of pregnancy according to numerous studies. Mothers can drink without even knowing they are pregnant, causing early damage in the fetus.

While drinking early in pregnancy is certainly dangerous, drinking any time throughout pregnancy can cause serious harm to an unborn child. The more a mother drinks, the more at risk her baby is.

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Symptoms Of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome can cover a number of different types of problems and conditions. For this reason, the symptoms of FAS are extensive.

A few of the many symptoms that can be associated with fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • mood swings
  • deformed body parts or phalanges
  • hyperactivity
  • poor judgment skills
  • shorter or thinner than others
  • abnormal facial features, such as wide-set eyes, thin upper lips, and a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip
  • inability to focus
  • intellectual disabilities
  • hearing or sight problems
  • delayed developmental skills
  • heart problems
  • kidney problems

Physical signs of FAS are often noticed in early childhood by those who are aware of and familiar with the condition. As the child grows older, interpersonal and intellectual difficulties may be discovered by teachers or others who are with the child on a daily basis.

It’s important to know that there are other conditions that can stem from a mother drinking while pregnant. More than 85 percent of children who are exposed to alcohol in utero will not have physical signs, but will still struggle mentally and behaviorally.

How Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosed?

If you or a loved one drank during your pregnancy, it’s important to let your doctor know. The earlier fetal alcohol syndrome can be diagnosed, the better for the child.

As an infant, the child’s physical appearance and heart can be examined. This is to ensure there is no heart murmur or other damage to the heart.

As he or she ages, signs of FAS may be increasingly present and can include:

  • small head
  • difficulty learning and speaking language
  • vision and hearing problems
  • a slow rate of growth compared to other children
  • facial features or bone growth that are abnormal

To make a diagnosis, the doctor must first be able to identify problems that include central nervous system issues, slow growth, and abnormal facial features. Nervous system problems can include behavioral and intellectual problems such as a learning disability.

Treatment For Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

There is no known cure for fetal alcohol syndrome. However, there are a number of steps that can be taken to minimize the impact it has on a child’s life. Treatment will depend on the type of symptoms displayed and will determine what kind of doctors or specialists may be needed.

Treatment At Home

Living in a loving, understanding, and stable home is incredibly important for children with FAS. being exposed to substance abuse or violence in childhood can leave children with FAS exceptionally vulnerable in their later years. They can also be more sensitive to disruptions to schedule or routine.

Providing a home that offers stability and consistency is key for children with FAS. A regular routine, as well as lots of love and understanding, will help the child grow up healthier and happier.

Treatment Through Counseling

Depending on the severity of the symptoms, some children with FAS may need counseling like behavioral training to live a full life. Counseling can be anything from getting help learning how to make friends to a science a tutor who helps the child better understand his or her class.

Parents and siblings may also make use of counseling, as living with a child with FAS is not always easy and can be challenging at times. Support groups are available for families and parents can also get training that is catered to their unique child’s needs.

Treatment Through Medication

While there is no one medication that is aimed at treating fetal alcohol syndrome, there are several medications that can address its symptoms. For example, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications can help control depression and anxiety, while stimulants can treat some behavioral problems.

It is important to work closely with the child’s doctor to determine which type of medication the child should take if any.

Treatment For Alcohol Abuse And Addiction

If you are wondering how to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome, the answer is simple: don’t drink while pregnant. However, for those who may be addicted to alcohol, this isn’t as easy as it seems.

Getting help for alcohol addiction is the best thing a mother can do to prevent her child or future children from developing FAS. A formal program of recovery is often recommended for those struggling with an addiction to alcohol.

Many women seeking help for alcohol use disorder start their journey with a medically monitored detox program to help with withdrawal symptoms. Once this is completed successfully, moving on to an individualized treatment program can provide the stability and support needed to overcome addiction.

To learn more about fetal alcohol syndrome and treatment for alcohol addiction, contact us today.

American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus - Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Center For Disease Control and Prevention - Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASDs)

Mayo Clinic - Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

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