Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Last Updated August 2022 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Leisa Bailey, MD

What is fetal alcohol syndrome?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a group of problems that can happen in a baby when the mother drinks alcohol while pregnant. The problems can be physical, mental, or behavioral. They can be mild or severe. They can start before the baby is born, or they may not be noticeable until childhood. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most serious type of FASD.

Is it okay to drink alcohol during pregnancy?

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can be dangerous to you and your baby. Babies born to mothers who drink during pregnancy may have serious health problems. Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of these problems.

Symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome

Symptoms of babies who have fetal alcohol syndrome include:

  • Poor growth in the womb
  • Small and underweight at birth
  • Small head and eyes
  • Heart defects, such as a hole in the heart
  • Delayed development
  • Vision or hearing problems

As they grow older, these children may have behavior problems. They may experience learning disabilities, trouble with memory and attention, and hyperactivity. Symptoms tend to get worse as the child grows older.

The most serious problem FAS can cause is developmental delay. FAS is the leading cause of preventable developmental delays in the United States.

What causes fetal alcohol syndrome?

FAS happens when a woman drinks when she’s pregnant. Even small amounts of alcohol will pass across the placenta and to the fetus. The baby’s liver is not developed enough to be able to process the alcohol. The alcohol can damage the baby’s organs or cause other harm. Because no amount of alcohol can be considered safe, pregnant women should avoid all alcohol during the entire pregnancy.

“Binge drinking” (having 3 or more drinks at a time) is especially dangerous for your baby. It makes the level of alcohol in your blood (and the baby’s blood) go very high very quickly. Even if you don’t drink every day, you may put your baby at risk for FAS if you binge drink.

Drinking alcohol in the first 3 months of pregnancy is the most dangerous. This is when the baby’s brain starts to develop. Alcohol can interfere with the development and cause birth defects. But drinking at any time during pregnancy is not safe and can harm your baby.

How is fetal alcohol syndrome diagnosed?

There isn’t a test for FAS. Your doctor will look for physical symptoms, such as a low birth weight and a small head. They will look at behavioral symptoms, such as attention and coordination. Your doctor will ask you if you drank while you were pregnant and if so, how much. FAS can be difficult to diagnose in childhood because it has similar symptoms to other disorders, such as ADHD.

Can fetal alcohol syndrome be prevented or avoided?

FAS is completely preventable. The best thing you can do is stop drinking when you are thinking about getting pregnant. If you get pregnant, quit drinking alcohol right away. Drink other beverages instead, such as water or milk.

If you are pregnant and you have been drinking alcohol, be honest with your doctor. Tell them how much you are drinking. They may be able to help you stop drinking before it hurts your baby.

Fetal alcohol syndrome treatment

There is no cure for FAS. It lasts a lifetime. However, there is help for these children. Their treatment involves providing them with good medical and dental care. This includes eyeglasses or hearing aids, if needed. Some behavioral symptoms can be managed with medicine. Children can be placed in special education programs to treat behavior or development issues.

Living with fetal alcohol syndrome

Most babies born with FAS will not have normal brain development. They will need ongoing therapy or special services. The outlook for them depends on the severity. The best thing to do is get them diagnosed early. This will allow doctors to create specialized plans for their development and education. In addition to early diagnosis, research shows that children also do best if they:

  • Are raised in a stable home
  • Are not exposed to violence
  • Receive special education and social services

Older children and adults with FAS can also face challenges. According to the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, people with FAS or other FASD problems can have trouble with:

  • Learning and remembering
  • Paying attention
  • Understanding and following directions
  • Controlling emotions and impulses
  • Communicating and socializing
  • Performing daily life activities, such as bathing, dressing, eating, or telling time

They are also more likely to have mental health disorders, including:

Remember that no amount of alcohol is safe in pregnancy. Quit drinking if you are trying to get pregnant or if you think you’re pregnant. If you can’t quit drinking by yourself, get help right away.

Questions to ask your doctor

If your baby was born with fetal alcohol syndrome:

  • What health problems does my baby have?
  • Does my baby need treatment?
  • How should I care for my baby at home?
  • What health or behavior problems should I look for as my baby gets older?

If you are drinking during pregnancy:

  • Am I putting my baby at risk for health problems?
  • How much alcohol is too much? Can I have even one drink?
  • I have a drinking problem. How do I stop?