Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Symptoms, Effects and Treatment
Recognizing and Treating FAS
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb. People with FAS may have distinctive facial features, cognitive problems and impaired growth.
Getting treatment early can help prevent some of the problems people with FAS may develop later in life, such as legal issues, mental health disorders and being dependent on a caregiver.
What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) encompass all of the conditions caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb. 1 Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most recognizable and serious of the FASDs. It is characterized by:
- Specific, abnormal facial features.
- Behavioral and cognitive difficulties.
- Impaired growth. 1
What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
When a mother drinks alcohol while pregnant, it passes through the placental circulation to the embryo or fetus and can affect the unborn baby’s health. 2 For this reason, doctors recommend that expecting mothers don’t drink alcohol while pregnant.
Prenatal exposure to alcohol can disrupt proper development and lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. Alcohol is detrimental to development at any stage of pregnancy. But it is particularly damaging in the first 3 months. 2 No matter what you might hear, it is not “safe” to drink alcohol in even mild or moderate amounts during pregnancy.
Fetal alcohol syndrome does not have a cure. But treatment can help address problems related to it.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Symptoms
The following symptoms can occur in babies suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome: 2
- Poor prenatal and postnatal growth.
- Difficulties with speech, social skills, coordination, and/or cognition.
- Lack of normal muscle tone.
- Heart defects (atrial and ventricular septal defect).
Common symptoms in people with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder include: 1
- A learning disability.
- Lack of language skills.
- Misinterpretation of social cues.
- Difficulty absorbing information.
- Trouble understanding cause and effect.
- Lower-than-average IQ.
- Unable to remember and follow instructions.
Facial Features and Characteristics
Fetal alcohol syndrome is considered the most recognizable of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders due to the specific facial features associated with its diagnosis. 2, 8 Some research suggests that these facial features may be less apparent after the person begins puberty.3
- Narrow, small eyes.
- Thin upper lip.
- Large inner eyelid folds.
- Small upper jaw.
- Undersized head.
- Smooth cleft above lips.
- Small, upturned nose.
- Ear abnormalities.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Effects
People with fetal alcohol syndrome are more likely to experience serious challenges than the general population, including: 4
- Intellectual disabilities.
- Mental disorders.
- Personality disorders.
- Substance abuse disorders.
- Behavioral management problems.
Further, research has revealed that people with fetal alcohol syndrome can suffer from a number of adverse life outcomes, such as: 5
- Disruption in school.
- Legal trouble.
- Confinement in detention, jail, prison, an addiction treatment setting, or a psychiatric facility.
- Inappropriate sexual behavior.
- Substance abuse problems.
Some protective factors that may prevent antisocial behaviors in people with fetal alcohol syndrome include: 5, 10
- Receiving a diagnosis at an early age.
- Being raised in a stable, loving household.
- Being involved in social services and special education.
- Avoiding exposure to violence.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Treatment
As stated earlier, fetal alcohol syndrome does not have a cure. But some interventions can help improve the lives of people who have this condition.
The symptoms can be treated, especially if the condition is caught in early childhood. The earlier interventions are begun, the more effective they will be in helping the child develop different skills. 7 These early interventions typically treat children from birth to age 3. 10
Getting an Assessment
If your child is diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, get him or her assessed by a team of professionals who specialize in treating children with this disorder. They will be able to create a treatment plan designed specifically to meet your child’s needs.
The plan could include a home-based program as well as collaboration between language/speech therapists, psychologists, and social workers, depending on the child’s strengths and weaknesses.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you are the caregiver of a child diagnosed with FAS: 7
- Set short-term, achievable goals to boost the child’s confidence and reinforce positive behaviors.
- Focus on his or her strengths when setting these goals.
- Take note of what motivates the child and use it to develop rewards and incentives.
- Reward positive behaviors and cooperation.
Each case of fetal alcohol syndrome is different, so interventions will depend on the person. They are adapted to fit the unique needs of the individual. The severity of FAS can vary as well as the types of symptoms (behavioral, cognitive, physical), which will affect the course of treatment. 10
Those affected by fetal alcohol syndrome may require different forms of treatment, which can include: 10
- Medication: The Food and Drug Administration has not approved any medication for the treatment of FAS. But your child may be prescribed stimulants, antidepressants, or neuroleptics to address different behavioral or mental problems.
- Parental training: This intervention teaches the parents how to help their children develop social and cognitive skills.
- Behavioral and educational therapy: Some scientifically tested interventions may help children with developmental disabilities associated with FAS: executive functioning training, parent-child interaction therapy, friendship training, parenting and behavior management training, and specialized math tutoring.
- Medical care: Depending on the nature of the symptoms, different specialists may need to closely monitor the child.
- Alternative approaches: Some untested therapies may be helpful, including biofeedback, yoga, creative art therapy, auditory training, animal-assisted therapy, and relaxation therapy.
Again, the earlier your child receives treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome, the better. If you suspect that your child has a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, make an appointment with his or her pediatrician right away.
How to Prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
The best way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is to abstain from alcohol while pregnant. 2 If you are trying to get pregnant, avoid drinking alcohol while you are attempting to conceive. This precaution will help prevent accidental consumption in the early stages of pregnancy.
Nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are accidental. 1 If your pregnancy was unintended, consult your doctor about potential complications. Use contraceptives if you drink heavily and are sexually active, but don’t intend to get pregnant. 2
Some mothers are more likely to give birth to a baby with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder than others due to environmental and mental health factors.
Below are some risk factors for giving birth to a baby with a FASD: 1
- Personal and family history of alcohol consumption and abuse.
- Previous treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues.
- Unplanned pregnancy.
- History of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
- Low socioeconomic status.
- Lack of health care access.
- Previously given birth to a baby with a FASD.
If you drink and are an expecting mother or are trying to conceive, contact your physician about preventative treatments and counseling to prevent or lower the risk of having a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome.
FASD in Adults
Fetal alcohol syndrome is usually recognizable due to the unique set of facial features associated with the condition. But people with other fetal alcohol spectrum disorders may not display any remarkable physical characteristics.
Many adults living with FASDs have not been properly diagnosed and experience deficits in major areas of life as a result. Often, insurance disability classifications don’t include FASDs as a qualifying condition. In addition, many people are not aware of FASDs, which means that adults suffering from these disorders tend to have employment and housing problems.
Adults affected by FASDs are at risk for a number of serious problems, including: 9
- Dependence on a caregiver and an inability to live alone.
- Legal problems.
- Mental health issues.
These adults are less likely to have a job and are more likely to have problems managing finances. 9
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Facts and Statistics
Although there is some discrepancy on the prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in the United States, FAS is considered the “leading cause of congenital mental retardation.” 3
Some research has suggested that as many as 50 in 1,000 babies have a FASD. 1 However, it’s difficult to uncover the true national rate of FASD due to the unwillingness of many mothers to admit their drinking habits while pregnant. 1
- $2 million is estimated to be spent on one person with FAS over his or her lifetime. 6
- $4 billion is estimated to be spent nationwide on FAS-related treatment. 6
- Roughly 20% of children experienced prenatal alcohol exposure, though they may not display all of the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome. 7
- Some research indicates that about 60% of prisoners were exposed to alcohol in the womb. 7
Alcohol Consumption Among Pregnant Women
Of pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 44 years old: 1
- 1% reported current heavy drinking.
- Nearly 4% reported current binge drinking.
- Nearly 11% reported current alcohol consumption.
- Just over 10% reported binge drinking within the first 3 months.
Another study reported even higher numbers: 1
- Just under 30% of study participants admitted to drinking during pregnancy.
- About 8% reported binge drinking (the majority being during the first trimester).
Find an Alcohol Treatment Center
If you are pregnant and would like to get help for an alcohol problem, or if you are looking for substance abuse treatment for yourself or a loved one, call to speak to a recovery center advisor today.
. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2014). Addressing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
. National Library of Medicine. (2014). Fetal alcohol syndrome: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.
. Spohr, H., Willms, J., & Steinhausen, H. (1993). Prenatal alcohol exposure and long-term developmental consequences. The Lancet, 341(8850), 907-910.
. Famy, C., Streissguth, A., & Unis, A. (1998). Mental Illness in Adults With Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Effects. American Journal of Psychiatry AJP, 155(4), 552-554. http://dx.doi.org/10.1176/ajp.155.4.552
. Streissguth, A., Bookstein, F., Barr, H., Sampson, P., O’malley, K., & Young, J. (2004). Risk Factors for Adverse Life Outcomes in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 25(4), 228-238.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs): Data & Statistics.
. Minnesota Department of Health. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
. Wattendorf, D. (2005). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. American Family Physician, 72(2), 279-285.
. National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Adults Living with FASD.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs): Treatments.