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A Pre– and Postnatal Guide to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

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Alcohol consumption of any type while pregnant, including wine and beer, is dangerous to the developing fetus and can cause significant health risks, including fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).1,2

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) are conditions, including FAS, that can occur in an individual whose mother used alcohol during pregnancy.

Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

FAS is a disorder within the broader diagnosis of FASDs that results from intrauterine exposure to alcohol or when a person drinks while pregnant.1 If you use alcohol during pregnancy, this can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and a host of other physical, behavioral, and mental disabilities.1

Symptoms of FAS include:3

  • Prenatal and/or postnatal growth retardation
  • Facial dysmorphology
  • Central nervous system dysfunction
  • Neurobehavioral disabilities
  • Issues with the heart, kidney, or bones

Causes of FAS

FAS occurs because the mother has consumed alcohol during her pregnancy. When you’re pregnant, and you drink alcohol, the developing fetus gets exposed to alcohol. Anything you put into your body will affect the fetus as well. Alcohol and pregnancy are not a healthy combination.

This is how FAS develops:4

  • Alcohol enters the bloodstream and reaches the developing fetus by crossing the placenta.
  • Alcohol causes higher blood alcohol concentrations in the fetus than in the mother’s body because a fetus metabolizes alcohol slower than an adult does.
  • Alcohol interferes with the delivery of oxygen and optimal nutrition to your developing baby.
  • Exposure to alcohol before birth can harm the development of tissues and organs and cause permanent brain damage in your baby.

Effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

T­he more you drink while pregnant, the greater the risk to your unborn baby. However, any amount of alcohol puts your baby at risk. Your baby’s brain, heart, and blood vessels begin to develop in the early weeks of pregnancy, so this is a critical organ formation time. Bringing alcohol into the equation causes a strain on the natural processes that stimulate the fetus’s healthy growth.

According to medical doctors at Mayo Clinic, “Impairment of facial features, the heart and other organs, including the bones, and the central nervous system may occur due to 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.”4

Some children exhibit more severe signs of FAS, while others are moderately affected. Signs and symptoms of FAS may include any combination of physical defects, intellectual or cognitive deficiencies, and problems functioning and coping with daily life. If you suspect your child may have FAS, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Spotting FAS early on may reduce problems later in life, such as learning difficulties and behavioral issues.4

Physical defects:

  • Distinct facial features, including small eyes, a prominently thin upper lip, a short, upturned nose, and a flat skin surface between the nose and upper lip.
  • Deformities of joints, limbs, and fingers.
  • Delayed physical growth before and after birth.
  • Vision and/or hearing problems.
  • Small head and brain size.
  • Heart problems and problems with kidneys and bones.

Brain and central nervous system problems:

  • Lack of coordination or balance.
  • Intellectual disability, learning disorders, and delayed development.
  • Poor memory.
  • Trouble focusing and processing information.
  • Challenges with reasoning and problem-solving.
  • Difficulty identifying consequences of choices.
  • Poor judgment skills.
  • Anxiousness or hyperactivity.
  • Mood swings.

Social and behavioral issues:

  • Problems in academic performance.
  • Problematic relationships and poor interpersonal skills.
  • Poor social skills.
  • Resistance adapting to change or switching from one task to another.
  • Impulsivity problems.
  • Lack of concept of time.
  • Issues staying on task.
  • Difficulty planning or consistently working toward goals.

With all of the risks associated with FAS and alcohol consumption during pregnancy, it’s vital to protect your unborn child and get help if you are struggling to quit drinking and are pregnant.

Effects on Children Later in Life

If you are drinking alcohol during pregnancy, your child is at risk for developing the following complications later in life:4

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Aggression, poor social conduct, and crime-related behaviors.
  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD) or drug misuse.
  • Mental health diagnoses, such as depression, anxiety, or eating disorders.
  • Problems staying in or finishing school.
  • Obstacles with independent living and with employment.
  • Inappropriate sexual conduct.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use and the child at risk for FAS, help is available. Preventing FAS and getting treatment, if necessary, is a step in the right direction. Call 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers to discuss rehab options today.

Preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

You could put your baby at risk even before you realize you’re pregnant. Don’t drink alcohol if:

  • You’re pregnant
  • You think you might be pregnant
  • You’re trying to become pregnant

Please get help and prevent your unborn child from becoming a statistic of FAS. FAS can have damaging long-term effects on individuals into adulthood.

CDC Strategies

Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests two main strategies to prevent FASD’s disorders, including FAS:1

  1. Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention (SBI): An effective preventive health service recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and covered under the Affordable Care Act. Like basic screening for blood pressure or cholesterol levels, alcohol SBI can be included as part of a patient’s wellness visit.
  2. CHOICES: An evidence-based counseling intervention (i.e., based on activities that research has shown to be valid and effective) using motivational interviewing for nonpregnant women to help them reduce or quit drinking, use contraceptives properly, or both. CHOICES seeks to increase a woman’s motivation and commitment to change.

SBI includes the following components:1

  • A short, validated set of screening questions to identify a patient’s drinking patterns.
  • A brief conversation with patients who are drinking too much and referral to specialized treatment as appropriate.
  • An Alcohol SBI Implementation Guide with information on risky alcohol use during pregnancy to assist staff in primary care practices devise and implement alcohol SBI to improve prevention of FASDs.

No two children will present the same traits of FASD’s, but if you spot it early on and provide early treatment, you will drastically improve your child’s quality of life. According to the CDC, “Even if your child has not received a diagnosis, he or she might qualify for early intervention treatment services through The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).” In most states, children with a diagnosis of FAS are immediately eligible for early intervention services.

Treatment for FAS

Several types of treatments are used for FASD and FAS cases. The primary methods of treatment are broken down into five broader categories:1

  • Medical Care: Well-baby care, vaccinations, good nutrition, exercise, hygiene, and basic medical care
  • Medication: Medication might help manage high energy levels, inability to focus, or depression.
  • Behavioral and Education Therapy: Good Buddies, Families Moving Forward (FMF) program, Math Interactive Learning Experience (MILE)
  • Parent Training: Parents and Children Together (PACT)
  • Alternative Approaches: Therapies that fall outside the scope of conventional medicine

Some examples of alternative approaches include:1

  • Biofeedback
  • Auditory training
  • Relaxation therapy
  • Visual imagery
  • Meditation (especially for sleep problems and anxiety)
  • Creative art therapy
  • Yoga and exercise
  • Acupuncture and acupressure
  • Massage, Reiki, and energy healing
  • Vitamins, herbal supplements, and homeopathy
  • Animal-assisted therapy

Families may also benefit from alternative approaches and the support of a family counselor or therapist. Parents of children with FAS should take care of themselves and receive proper support from others with similar experiences. Sharing stories, discussing concerns, and providing mutual encouragement are helpful parts of the recovery process.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you are unaware that your child is suffering from FAS. The first step is to educate yourself so that you can better assist your child. Whether you are considering becoming pregnant, already pregnant, or know someone who is, educating yourself on the dangers of alcohol during pregnancy is the best route to preventing FAS and other FASDs.

Lastly, if you are struggling with drinking while pregnant, please know that help is available for you and your unborn child. Call a treatment specialist today at 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers for more resources.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, October 8). Alcohol use in pregnancy.
  2. Hankin, J. (n.d.). Fetal alcohol syndrome prevention research.
  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. (2021). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: The facts.
  4. Mayo Clinic. (2018, January 10). Fetal alcohol syndrome.
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