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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Written By
Matt Gonzales
This page features
5 Cited Research Articles

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) comprises a set of physical, mental and behavioral complications that occur in babies exposed to alcohol while in the womb. The condition is incurable, but certain symptoms can be alleviated through therapy, medications and alternative treatment approaches.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition that may occur in children whose mothers drink during pregnancy. The disorder is characterized by growth deficiency, abnormal facial features and central nervous system problems caused by prenatal alcohol exposure.

The condition is the most severe classification of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, a collection of physical and mental birth defects caused by alcohol exposure in the womb. FAS can result in a number of physical and mental complications, including learning deficiencies and brain damage.

Many women whose children are born with FAS have an alcohol addiction. Treating the mother’s drinking problem, even during pregnancy, can help prevent the disorder and improve parenting outcomes. The sooner she stops using alcohol after becoming pregnant, the less likely her child is to develop the condition.

What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Drinking during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome. In fact, alcohol is the leading cause of preventable birth defects and developmental disabilities in the United States. The more women drink during pregnancy, the more likely their baby is to develop symptoms related to FAS.

Alcohol is the leading cause of preventable birth defects in the United States.

When the pregnant mother drinks, alcohol passes through the umbilical cord, crosses the placenta and reaches the prenatal child. High blood alcohol concentrations can prevent the baby from receiving sufficient amounts of nutrients and oxygen needed for proper fetal development, which can lead to FAS.

During the first few weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant, alcohol use can cause serious birth defects. Drinking later in the pregnancy can result in poor growth and brain damage, causing a host of physical, behavioral and learning disabilities.

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Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

People with fetal alcohol syndrome may experience a range of physical and behavioral problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These complications can affect many facets of life, including an individual’s ability to learn and develop friendships.

Some of the physical, cognitive and behavioral complications associated with FAS include:

Physical Problems

  • Slow physical growth before and after birth
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Deformities to the eyes, upper lip, nose, limbs, joints and fingers
  • Small head circumference and brain size
  • Bone, kidney and heart problems

Cognitive Problems

  • Poor memory
  • Learning disorders and intellectual disabilities
  • Trouble with problem-solving and reasoning
  • Mood swings
  • Hyperactivity or jitteriness
  • Poor balance and coordination
  • Difficulties processing information

Behavioral Problems

  • Poor social skills
  • Trouble interacting with and bonding with others
  • Difficulties adapting to change
  • Poor concept of time
  • Problems planning or striving to reach goals

The severity of FAS varies, and some children with the disorder experience more serious deficiencies than others. Some children may experience a combination of physical abnormalities and mental health problems, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and depression.

How Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Treated?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is incurable. Its physical and mental problems generally last a lifetime. However, an early diagnosis of FAS may help reduce some effects and prevent some secondary disabilities, such as drug or alcohol abuse.

Intervention Services

Treatment for FAS often involves intervention services. A team comprising a speech therapist, physical and occupational therapists, a special education teacher and a psychologist can help children deal with a range of physical and mental deficiencies.


Medications cannot treat FAS, but they can help alleviate symptoms. For example, antidepressants address sadness and other negative emotions, stimulants treat hyperactivity and other behavioral problems, and neuroleptics treat anxiety and aggression.


Behavioral counseling can teach children social skills needed to interact with their peers and improve their ability to control their thoughts and actions. Counseling can also help parents manage their child’s behavioral issues.

Alternative Treatments

Some alternative treatments can help children with FAS reach their full potential. These therapies may include massage, acupuncture or biofeedback. Relaxation techniques such as yoga can help alleviate anxiety caused by the disorder.

How to Prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The best way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is to avoid alcohol use while pregnant. No amount of alcohol is safe to consume during pregnancy, and there is no safe time to drink during pregnancy.

Women who are pregnant, are trying to become pregnant or think they might be pregnant should avoid drinking altogether. Those who engage in social drinking should drink nonalcoholic beverages instead of alcohol while attending a social function or party.

Women with a drinking problem who want to get pregnant should first seek treatment. A combination of rehab, counseling and 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous can help women overcome alcoholism and learn how to live healthy, alcohol-free lives.

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