What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome - pregnant women with her face in her hands

Alcohol is toxic to humans. Drinking too much alcohol causes decreased coordination, impaired decision-making, memory loss and extreme dehydration. If alcohol can cause this much damage to a grown adult, imagine how much harm it can cause to an unborn baby.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition that occurs when a fetus is exposed to alcohol. FAS can happen at any time during pregnancy, and it can cause debilitating changes to a baby’s intellectual capacity, physical appearance, and growth rate.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Defined

Fetal alcohol syndrome is characterized by a variety of physical deformities and mental defects in a child, caused by exposure to alcohol during the mother’s pregnancy. While the symptoms and severity of this condition vary from child to child, they are irreversible. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Causes of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy, harming the unborn child in the process. When a pregnant woman has a glass of wine or bottle of beer, the alcohol enters her bloodstream and is carried to the placenta, the organ that supplies nutrients to the growing fetus. The alcohol then passes through the placenta wall to the fetus.

A fetus cannot process alcohol the same as a grown adult. When a baby is exposed to alcohol in utero, it damages neurons, disrupts cell formation and causes cell loss in the brain. Drinking during pregnancy can prevent the fetus from getting vital nutrients and oxygen needed to grow properly.

While some women have more of a genetic predisposition to drink than others, this does not mean that FAS is a hereditary condition. It is completely preventable if a woman does not drink alcohol during her pregnancy.

What Are The Types Of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders encompass a number of conditions. Each type is characterized by unique behavioral and cognitive problems and physical deformities.

The four most common types of FASDs are:

  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects: Babies born with ARBD will experience problems with how some of their organs were formed and how they function. They may also suffer from other fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopment Disorder: While people with this disorder do not show physical symptoms, they may exhibit various neurological problems due to the way their brain and nervous system were formed. These individuals may have intellectual disabilities, behavioral and cognitive problems or brain abnormalities.
  • Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Those diagnosed with pFAS do not meet the full criteria for fetal alcohol syndrome. However, their history of prenatal alcohol exposure may have caused facial abnormalities, slower-than-average growth rates or cognitive disabilities.
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: FAS is considered the most severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The symptoms of this condition are unique and based on specific measurements and irregularities in facial features, growth rate and central nervous system problems.

FASDs are incurable, and some children with these disorders will require round-the-clock care. However, research has shown that early identification of the disorder and a comprehensive treatment program can significantly increase the quality of life for a child with any type of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

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Physical Deformities Caused By Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome is characterized by very particular signs. One of the most noticeable signs of this condition is abnormalities in facial features, including:

  • Short palpebral fissures (horizontal eye openings)
  • Thin upper lip
  • Smooth area between the nose and upper lip

These three facial deformities are the most consistent visual indications of fetal alcohol syndrome and are used for diagnosing the condition in newborns and children. Other features consistent with FAS are:

  • Flat midface
  • Small head
  • Upturned nose
  • Flattened nose
  • Underdeveloped ears
  • Curved pinky finger
  • “Hockey stick” crease on the palm
  • Drooping upper eyelid(s)

While there are many visual clues that could indicate fetal alcohol syndrome, there are also many less-obvious signs and symptoms of this condition.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Signs and Symptoms

Many children with FAS experience slow growth rates, exhibiting below-average weight and height for their age group. Those with fetal alcohol syndrome may also present various structural, neurological and functional problems due to how their central nervous system was affected by alcohol.

The central nervous system is a complex structure used to control the day-to-day activities of the body. When not formed properly, it can result in abnormalities such as:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Delay in social skills
  • Hearing or vision problems
  • Poor coordination
  • Speech difficulties
  • Impaired judgment
  • Learning disabilities
  • Below-average IQ
  • Heart problems
  • Mood swings
  • Seizures
  • Decreased brain size

Symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome vary based on the amount of alcohol a fetus was exposed to and at what point in the pregnancy they were exposed to it. Alcohol appears to be the most harmful to children within the first three months of pregnancy but can cause damage at any point.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Stigma and Prevention

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as many as 30 percent of women admit to drinking during their pregnancy. Rates of fetal alcohol syndrome have tripled since the disorder was first recognized in the early 1970s.

Much like alcoholism, those who are impacted by fetal alcohol syndrome may experience social stigma. This stigma and shame surrounding alcoholism and alcohol consumption during pregnancy can negatively affect prevention and diagnosis. Some people may blame the birth mother of an individual with FAS or assume that she intentionally harmed her child during pregnancy.

The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome states that mothers who drink during their pregnancy do so for only a few reasons. One of the most common reasons is that some women suffer from the disease of alcoholism and cannot control their drinking—even during pregnancy. In such cases, the mother does not intend to harm her child with alcohol, but she is also incapable of abstaining from it.

A woman who suffers from alcoholism during her pregnancy should never be shamed for her behaviors. This discrimination will not help to prevent future cases of FAS, but it will hinder mothers from reaching out for help for themselves and their child.

Instead of passing judgment, the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome suggests that doctors educate their patients about the risks of prenatal alcohol exposure. Doctors should screen all women of childbearing age for alcohol use and refer them to appropriate treatment as needed.

Helping women who suffer from alcoholism before they have children is the most effective way to prevent future cases of fetal alcohol syndrome and reduce the stigma associated with alcoholism and FAS.

To decrease the number of children born with this condition, doctors recommend that pregnant women abstain from alcohol for the full duration of their pregnancy. Unfortunately, this can be particularly hard for women suffering from alcoholism.

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