Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

(Alcohol in Pregnancy; Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy; FAS)

En Español (Spanish Version)

Definition

When a women drinks alcohol during pregnancy, it can cause birth and developmental defects in the baby. This is called fetal alcohol syndrome.

Causes

The condition is caused by alcohol that crosses from the mother's blood to the baby's blood through the placenta. Even a small amount of alcohol can damage the fetus. Doctors do not know how much alcohol it takes to cause defects. The risk increases with moderate to heavy drinking and with binging. But even “social drinking” may pose a danger.

Any type of alcohol can cause birth defects, including beer and wine.

Blood Traveling Through Mother's Placenta to Baby

baby fetus placenta

Alcohol travels through this path and affects the baby's development, particularly the heart and brain.

© 2008 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your baby's chance of getting fetal alcohol syndrome. Tell your doctor if you have any of these:

  • Unplanned pregnancy
  • Failure to recognize early pregnancy and continuing to drink
  • Alcoholism
  • Lack of knowledge about the risks of drinking while pregnant
  • Advanced maternal age
  • Low socioeconomic status

Symptoms

Birth and developmental defects depend on when the fetus was exposed to alcohol.

Babies with fetal alcohol syndrome may have the following physical symptoms:

  • Low birth weight
  • Small size and retarded growth
  • Small head
  • Small eyes
  • Short, flat nose
  • Flat cheeks
  • Small jaws
  • Unusually shaped ears
  • Thin upper lip
  • Shaking or tremors
  • Sight and hearing problems
  • Heart defects
  • Small, abnormally formed brain
  • Minor joint defects that may restrict movement
  • Teeth prone to cavities
  • Vision problems
  • Ear infections

As the infant grows, other symptoms may develop, including:

Children do not outgrow these effects. Teens and adults often experience social and emotional problems. They may develop secondary conditions, which include:

  • Problems at school
  • Inability to hold a job
  • Trouble living independently
  • Mental health problems
  • Alcohol or drug dependence
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Difficulty controlling anger
  • Legal problems

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask you about your alcohol intake while pregnant, assess the child's growth, and perform a physical exam. The diagnosis is based on:

  • History of alcohol use
  • Characteristic facial appearance
  • Slow growth
  • Nervous system problems

Some children with this condition do not have the facial symptoms. Their condition is described as "fetal alcohol effect."

An early diagnosis can help your child get the services he needs.

Treatment

There is no specific medical treatment for this condition. Early intervention is helpful, as well as a supportive, nurturing home.

Social Services

Professional support helps a family cope with caring for a child with birth defects. Services include respite care and parent training. You can learn ways to handle behavior problems and stress management techniques.

Special Education

Programs designed to meet your child's needs improve learning. For example, messages may need to be repeated. Tasks may need to be broken down into smaller steps.

Supportive Environment

  • Provide consistent direction and structure.
  • Keep to routines.
  • Establish simple rules, limits, and consequences.
  • Praise desired behaviors.
  • Do not threaten. Violence or abuse increases the risk the child will learn to react in a similar fashion. Your child may need special training to learn ways to handle anger.

Prevention

  • Avoid drinking alcohol if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Also, take folic acid to prevent other birth defects.
  • Avoid heavy drinking when not using birth control. Damage can occur before you even know you are pregnant.
  • Seek help from a doctor if you cannot stop drinking.
  • Use birth control until you are able to quit drinking.

RESOURCES:

National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
http://www.nofas.org/

Pregnancy.org
http://www.pregnancy.org/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Alcoholics Anonymous (Canada)
http://www.aacanada.com/

Women's Health Matters
http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca/index.cfm/

References:

Chaudhuri JD. Alcohol and the developing fetus—a review. Med Sci Monit . 2000;6:1031-1041.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy. March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation website. Available at: http://www.marchofdimes.com/ . Updated January 2005. Accessed June 18, 2008.

Drinking and your pregnancy. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/DrinkingPregnancy_HTML/pregnancy.htm . Accessed June 18, 2008.

Fetal alcohol syndrome. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php . Updated April 2008. Accessed June 18, 2008.

Treating individuals affected with FASD. National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome website. Available at: http://www.nofas.org/healthcare/treatment.aspx .

Prenatal exposure to alcohol [review]. Alcohol Res Health . 2000;24:32-41.

Thackray H, Tifft C. Fetal alcohol syndrome. Pediatr Rev . 2001;22:47-55.



Last reviewed November 2007 by Kari L. Kassir, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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