Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition in a child that results from alcohol exposure during the mother's pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome causes brain damage and growth problems. The problems caused by fetal alcohol syndrome vary from child to child, but defects caused by fetal alcohol syndrome are irreversible.
There is no amount of alcohol that's known to be safe to consume during pregnancy. If you drink during pregnancy, you place your baby at risk of fetal alcohol syndrome.
If you suspect your child has fetal alcohol syndrome, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis may reduce the risk of problems such as learning difficulties and behavior issues.
The severity of fetal alcohol syndrome symptoms varies, with some children experiencing them to a far greater degree than others. Signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome may include any mix of physical defects, intellectual or cognitive disabilities, and problems functioning and coping with daily life.
Physical defects may include:
Problems with the brain and central nervous system may include:
Problems in functioning, coping and interacting with others may include:
If you're pregnant and can't stop drinking, ask your obstetrician or other health care provider for help.
Because early diagnosis may help reduce the risk of long-term problems for children with fetal alcohol syndrome, let your child's doctor know if you drank alcohol while you were pregnant. Don't wait for problems to arise before seeking help.
If you've adopted a child or are providing foster care, you may not know if your child's biological mother drank alcohol while pregnant — and it may not initially occur to you that your child may have fetal alcohol syndrome. However, if your child has learning and behavioral problems, talk with your child's doctor so that the underlying cause might be identified.
When you're pregnant and drink alcohol:
The more you drink while pregnant, the greater the risk to your unborn baby. Your baby's brain, heart and blood vessels begin to develop in the early weeks of pregnancy, before you may know you're pregnant.
Impairment of facial features, the heart and other organs, including the bones, and the central nervous system may occur as a result of drinking alcohol during the first trimester. That's when these parts of the fetus are in key stages of development. However, the risk is present at any time during pregnancy.
If you report the timing and amount of alcohol consumption, your obstetrician or other health care provider can help determine the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome. Although doctors can't diagnose fetal alcohol syndrome before a baby is born, they can assess the health of the mother and baby during pregnancy.
Your child's doctor can watch for signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome in your child's initial weeks, months and years of life. Early diagnosis and provision of services can help improve your child's ability to function.
Diagnosing fetal alcohol syndrome requires expertise and a thorough assessment. To make a diagnosis, doctors assess:
The doctor may also assess:
Many features seen with fetal alcohol syndrome may also occur in normal, healthy children or in children with other disorders. If fetal alcohol syndrome is suspected, your pediatrician may refer your child to a developmental pediatrician, a neurologist or another expert with special training in fetal alcohol syndrome for evaluation and to rule out other disorders with similar signs and symptoms.
The range of consequences from drinking alcohol during pregnancy are collectively called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, as not all signs and symptoms are present in all children with the disorder. This range includes:
If one child in a family is diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, it may be important to evaluate his or her siblings to determine whether they also have fetal alcohol syndrome, if the mother drank alcohol during these pregnancies.
Problem behaviors not present at birth that can result from having fetal alcohol syndrome (secondary disabilities) may include:
Doctors haven't identified a safe level of alcohol that a pregnant woman can consume. But experts do know that fetal alcohol syndrome is completely preventable if women don't drink alcohol during pregnancy.
These guidelines can help prevent fetal alcohol syndrome:
The psychological and emotional problems associated with fetal alcohol syndrome can be difficult to manage for the person with the syndrome and for the family.
Children with fetal alcohol syndrome and their families may benefit greatly from the support of professionals and other families who have experience with this syndrome. Ask your health care provider for local sources of support for children with fetal alcohol syndrome and their families.
As a parent of a child with fetal alcohol syndrome, you may find the following suggestions helpful in dealing with behavior problems associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. Learning these skills (sometimes called parent training) can include:
A stable, nurturing home is the single most important factor in protecting children with fetal alcohol syndrome from some of the secondary disabilities they're at risk of later in life.
The more alcohol you drink during pregnancy, the greater the chance of problems in your baby. There's no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
You could put your baby at risk even before you realize you're pregnant. Don't drink alcohol if: