Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a serious condition that occurs in children born to mothers who consumed alcohol while they were pregnant. This condition is characterized by birth defects that can be attributed to the effects of alcohol in the bloodstream when a fetus is developing. Generally speaking, fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when a woman chronically consumes and abuses alcohol during pregnancy.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is the number one cause of birth defects in the United States and as such is a major problem and issue. The reason that fetal alcohol occurs so often is because alcohol passes so easily through the placenta and the fetus. Since the fetus’s body is not fully developed, it cannot process alcohol in the same way an adult can and can cause developmental problems with the brain, nervous system, heart, kidneys, and even the skeletal structure.

What are the Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

The symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome can vary a great deal from child to child based on several factors including the amount of alcohol the mother consumed, at what stage of the child’s development it occurred, as well as other factors.

Symptoms include

Some of the most common symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome are certain facial feature issues such as a small jaw, drooping upper eyelids, a thin upper lip, smaller than normal eyes, a short nose that is upturned, and flattened cheeks. They also often have a smaller head than normal.

Other symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome include growth problems, a lack of coordination, balance problems, learning and intellectual disabilities, problems with attention and hyperactivity, other behavioral issues, and heart, skeletal, and kidney disorders and disease.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Causes

The cause of fetal alcohol syndrome is the consumption of alcohol by a pregnant mother. The risk of the baby developing this condition rises with the amount of alcohol the mother drinks. The alcohol she consumes goes into her bloodstream. It then gets passed to the baby’s blood. This alcohol in the fetus’ blood leads to problems in the body and brain. Because a fetus does not have a liver that is fully developed, there is no mechanism to process alcohol. Because it is not processed, it easily enters the organs and causes damage to them. Drinking alcohol during the first trimester of pregnancy leads to the most severe fetal alcohol problems. The following trimesters are also unsafe for maternal drinking. During this time, the fetus’ brain is still developing, and this development can be interrupted by alcohol entering the brain, even if it is only in moderate amounts.

How is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Treated?

There is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome, though many of the symptoms can be managed.

Treatment includes

Accommodations can be made in classes and school to help your child learn and deal with learning and developmental disabilities. Psychological care and treatment can help with attention and hyperactivity issues, and rehabilitation and physical therapy can assist with balance and coordination problems.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Prevention

Fetal alcohol syndrome is completely preventable. If a pregnant mother does not drink any alcohol during the pregnancy, this syndrome will not develop. Even small amounts are harmful to the developing fetus. It is important not to drink alcohol during any part of pregnancy, so women who are trying to get pregnant should not drink alcohol either. For women who are of childbearing age and who are having unprotected sex, it is also advisable not to drink alcohol.

For women who have alcoholism, getting help with the addiction is important before the pregnancy begins. However, it is never too late to stop drinking. Getting into a rehab program can be helpful in teaching mothers the tools they need to not drink during their pregnancy. Group therapy sessions and meetings can also be helpful. Develop a treatment plan with your doctor if you have had a long dependency on alcohol. You may need medical assistance with quitting to prevent withdrawal.

Last Reviewed:
September 21, 2016
Last Updated:
December 21, 2017
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