Babies whose mothers drank alcohol during their pregnancy can be born with birth defects and developmental disabilities. The problems that can happen when babies are exposed to alcohol are grouped together and called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). These include a wide range of physical, behavioral, and learning problems. The most severe type of FASD is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
How Does Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Affect Children?
Children with fetal alcohol syndrome have facial features such as small eyes, a thin upper lip, and a smooth philtrum (the groove between nose and upper lip).
They also can have:
Poor growth. Newborns may have low birth weights and small heads. They may not grow or gain weight as well as other children.
Birth defects. FAS can cause heart, bone, and kidney problems. Vision problems and hearing loss are common.
Seizures and other neurologic problems, such as learning disabilities, and poor balance and coordination.
Delayed development. Kids may not reach milestones at the expected time.
Behavioral problems. Babies may be fussy or jittery, and have trouble sleeping. Older children and teens may have:
a lack of coordination and poor fine-motor skills
trouble getting along with friends and relating to others
learning problems (especially in math), poor memory, and poor problem-solving skills
behavior problems such as hyperactivity, poor attention and concentration, and impulsiveness
Children with other FASDs have many of the same problems, but usually to a lesser degree.
How Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosed?
Doctors can diagnose the condition based on a baby’s symptoms, especially if they know that the mother drank during pregnancy. In children with milder problems, FASD can be harder to diagnose. No blood test or other medical test can diagnose FASD.
The child may go to see a team of specialists who can help make the diagnosis. They might include a developmental pediatrician, neurologist, genetic specialist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and psychologist.
How Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Treated?
There is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome or other FASDs. But many things can help children reach their full potential, especially if the problem is found early.
Kids can benefit from:
early intervention services and special education in school
Parent training can help caregivers learn how to best care for a child with FAS and handle any problem behaviors.
Can Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Be Prevented?
Alcohol use (beer, wine, or hard liquor) during pregnancy is the leading cause of preventable birth defects and intellectual disabilities in the United States.
Fetal alcohol syndrome and other FASDs can be prevented by not drinking any alcohol during pregnancy. A woman shouldn’t drink if she’s trying to get pregnant or thinks she may be pregnant. If a pregnant woman does drink, the sooner she stops, the better it will be for her baby’s health.
Alcohol easily passes through the placenta, the organ that nourishes a baby during pregnancy. So no amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy. Even a little bit of alcohol can harm a developing fetus and increase the risk of miscarriage.
How Can Parents Help?
Children with FASD tend to be friendly and cheerful and enjoy social interaction. But caring for a child with this syndrome can be a challenge. Kids will have lifelong physical, learning, and behavioral problems.
Besides early intervention services and support from your child's school, providing a stable, nurturing, and safe home environment can help reduce the effects of an FASD. Don't be afraid to get help, if needed. Talk to your child's doctor or other members of the care team.
Caregivers should take care of themselves too. Support groups and counselors can help. It's also important to get help for a parent or caregiver who struggles with alcohol addiction.