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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome - Signs, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome - Signs, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Fetal alcohol spectrum is the effect seen in babies born to mothers who drank alcohol during pregnancy. Read the article to know more about the signs, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Suresh Kumar G D

Published At September 21, 2020
Reviewed AtJanuary 20, 2023

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

A condition that affects the fetus of a woman who consumed alcohol during pregnancy is called fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This alcohol exposure can result in brain damage and growth problems in the fetus. The symptoms vary from one baby to another, but the defects caused by it are permanent.

No amount of alcohol is considered safe to be consumed during pregnancy. Even if you take a sip of alcohol during pregnancy, your baby can get affected by this syndrome. Earlier diagnosis helps in managing the symptoms better. Doctors can help form a treatment plan to reduce symptoms such as behavioral problems and learning difficulties.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are conditions that can cause mental and physical birth defects in babies due to maternal alcohol consumption. The types of FASDs are:

  1. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome - it includes both birth defects and neurodevelopmental disorders.

  2. Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome - the child exhibits a few signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome.

  3. Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder - maternal drinking results in intellectual or behavioral disabilities.

  4. Alcohol-Related Birth Defects - maternal drinking causes physical birth defects.

  5. Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated With Prenatal Alcohol Exposure - maternal drinking results in neurocognitive impairments like mental health problems, poor memory and communication skills, and impulsiveness.

FAS is a severe form of FASDs. It can affect a person’s vision, hearing, attention span, memory, and abilities to learn.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

As mentioned earlier, the severity of the symptoms and birth defects vary from one child to another. Some children can experience milder symptoms than others. The signs and symptoms of FAS can be divided into:

Facial Features:

  • Small head circumference.

  • Small eyes.

  • Thin upper lip.

  • A short and upturned nose.

  • No ridge between the nose and upper lip (philtrum).

  • Small eye-opening.

  • Flat midface.

  • Underdeveloped jaw.

  • Low nasal bridge.

Physical Defects:

  • The size of the brain is also small.

  • The joints and limbs can be deformed.

  • Delayed physical growth.

  • Vision problems.

  • Hearing difficulties.

  • Heart defects.

  • Kidney abnormalities.

Behavioral Problems:

  • Problems interacting with others.

  • Inability to get along with others.

  • Bad social skills.

  • Inability to manage time.

  • Lack of focus.

  • Difficulty with planning.

  • Inability to switch or adapt to different tasks.

  • Impulsiveness.

Brain and Central Nervous System Defects:

  • Intellectual disability.

  • Poor balance.

  • Bad coordination.

  • Learning disorders.

  • Delayed development.

  • Bad memory.

  • Hyperactivity

  • Mood instability.

  • Difficulty in processing information.

  • Attention-deficit.

  • Inability to reason or identifying consequences.

  • Poor judgment.


When to Consult a Doctor?

All pregnant women who are finding it hard to stop drinking should consult a doctor immediately. If your child has symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome, then inform your doctor if you consumed alcohol during pregnancy.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Fetus?

In case you are pregnant, and you consume alcohol, it easily reaches the growing fetus through the placenta. The fetus metabolizes alcohol slower than us adults, which makes alcohol more concentrated in the fetus. This might prevent nutrition and oxygen from reaching the fetus’s vital developing organs. This nutrition and oxygen deficiency can affect the development of tissues and organs and can also result in permanent brain damage.

This damage can be done even during the first few weeks of pregnancy when the mother is not aware that she is pregnant. The chances of birth defects increase in alcoholic women. It is most harmful during the first trimester, as the heart, facial features, bones, brain, and central nervous system form during the first three months. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, consuming alcohol during any trimester can be dangerous.

As there is no known safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed during pregnancy, the best thing to do is to avoid drinking if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant or think that you might be pregnant.

How Does a Doctor Diagnose Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

The doctor will be able to diagnose this condition only if you discuss the time and amount of alcohol you consumed during pregnancy. This condition cannot be diagnosed before birth, but the doctor can keep a close eye on the mother and baby’s health.

The doctor will then look for signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome after your child is born. They will assess:

  1. Facial features.

  2. Brain growth.

  3. Overall development.

  4. Cognitive ability.

  5. Difficulties in learning and language development.

  6. Health problems.

  7. Behavioral problems.

The point to be noted is these symptoms can also be seen in other mental and behavioral disorders in children. So, your doctor will try to rule out those conditions before diagnosing it as fetal alcohol syndrome. In case a child is diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, the doctor might also evaluate his or her siblings to rule out FAS.

Can Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Be Treated?

FAS is not curable, as the effects of alcohol on the baby are permanent. But, some of the symptoms can be managed with proper treatment. The treatment options include:

1) Home Care:

It is important to maintain a stable and loving home for children with FAS, as they are more sensitive to disruptions in routine. If they are exposed to abuse and violence at home, they are more likely to develop substance abuse later in life. So, let them follow a routine, give them simple rules to obey, and appreciate positive behavior.

2) Medications:

Depending on the symptoms, the doctor will prescribe:

  1. Antidepressants- Depression and sadness problem.

  2. Antianxiety drugs - Anxiety and aggression.

  3. Stimulants - Behavioral problems and lack of focus.

3) Behavioral Therapy:

Behavioral therapy might help the child make friends and teach them how to interact with others. It may also improve self-control and reasoning. Such children will also need help with their studies. Parental training will help parents communicate and help children with FAS.

What Are the Possible Complications of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Children with FAS are at risk of developing the following disorders as they grow up:

  1. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

  2. Alcohol or drug abuse.

  3. Depression.

  4. Anxiety.

  5. Eating disorders.

People affected by FAS are at higher risk of dropping out of school, have problems holding on to a job and living independently, and can exhibit socially and sexually inappropriate behaviour. Those with significant difficulties will be requiring more support in their daily life.


FAS can be entirely prevented if a pregnant woman does not drink. The following are some guidelines that all women should follow to avoid this syndrome:

  1. Do not drink if you think you might be pregnant, are pregnant, or trying to get pregnant.

  2. If you are addicted, then talk to your doctor and get treated before conceiving.

  3. If you are having unprotected sex, consider giving up alcohol.

Keep in mind that you might not know that you are pregnant up to 4 to 6 weeks, and drinking in that period can also affect your baby. To know more about FAS, consult a doctor online.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Happens to a Baby if the Mother Drinks Alcohol?

When the mother drinks alcohol in pregnancy, the alcohol and its toxic materials stay in the blood of the fetus for a very long time. It causes harmful effects on the tissues of the fetus and will interrupt growth and development.


How Can Alcohol Affect a Fetus?

The alcohol consumed by the mother during the pregnancy period can stay in the bloodstream of the child for a very long time. This blood will have a toxic nature from the alcohol. It is not possible for the fetus to metabolize the toxicity easily. As a result, the growth and development of the brain and other tissues get affected.


What Are the Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Children?

The symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome in children are:
- Poor coordination and balance.
- Poor memory.
- Learning disorders.
- Unstable mood.
- Trouble focusing.
- Difficulty in problem-solving.
- Hyperactivity.


What Are the Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Adults?

The symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome in adults are:
- Organ defects.
- Small palpebral fissures.
- Flattened philtrum.
- Smaller head circumference.
- Bone growth issues.
- Smaller eye openings.


Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Common?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is not a common condition. Medical reports suggest that in the United States of America, every one or two babies out of 1000 babies are affected by fetal alcohol syndrome.


Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Hereditary?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is not a hereditary condition. It can occur only when the mother drinks alcohol during the time of pregnancy. If the mother is known to have fetal alcohol syndrome, it does not pass on to the child unless the mother consumes alcohol.


Can a Child Outgrow Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

A child cannot outgrow fetal alcohol syndrome. All the babies affected by fetal alcohol syndrome are affected in one or the other way their whole life. It is very difficult for the child to overcome this condition because the condition begins in the very early stage of growth.


What Are the Birth Defects Caused by Alcohol?

The most threatening health condition caused by alcohol is fetal alcohol syndrome. This happens due to the consumption of alcohol by the mother during her pregnancy. There are several other birth defects caused by alcohol, and they are referred to as fetal alcohol syndrome.


At What Age is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Usually Diagnosed?

Fetal alcohol syndrome can be diagnosed in the child only after birth. The child starts expressing facial abnormalities and other health-related conditions like heart and kidney problems. You can consult your doctor and get medical help.


Can Consumption of Alcohol by Father Lead to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Father’s consumption of alcohol cannot cause fetal alcohol syndrome. This condition purely occurs only when the mother drinks alcohol during the pregnancy. Father does not influence this condition in any aspect.


What Is the Life Expectancy of a Child With Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

The average life expectancy of a child with fetal alcohol syndrome is about 34 years. This might vary from one child to another. The children affected by fetal alcohol syndrome face severe problems when they grow into adults.


Will Drinking One Night Hurt My Baby?

One night of drinking can hurt the baby. A minute level of alcohol can become very disastrous for the baby. The toxicity of the alcohol can interfere with the normal growth of the tissues. It is better for the mother to completely avoid alcohol during pregnancy.


What Happens if I Accidentally Drink in Pregnancy?

There are chances that you might not be aware of your pregnancy in the initial stages. Consuming alcohol accidentally also has negative effects on the fetus. In the early stages of pregnancy, consumption of alcohol can result in miscarriage or stillbirth.


Does Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Cause Physical Changes?

The physical changes caused by patients with fetal alcohol syndrome are:
- Abnormal facial features like small eyes and thin upper lip.
- Deformities in the fingers and legs.
- Slow physical development.
The patients will also suffer from vision problems and hearing difficulties.
Source Article IclonSourcesSource Article Arrow
Dr. Suresh Kumar G D
Dr. Suresh Kumar G D



fetal alcohol syndrome
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