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Fetal alcohol syndrome

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.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

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

Physical defects may include:

  • Distinctive facial features, including wide-set eyes, an exceptionally thin upper lip, a short, upturned nose, and a smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip
  • Deformities of joints, limbs and fingers
  • Slow physical growth before and after birth
  • Vision difficulties or hearing problems
  • Small head circumference and brain size
  • Heart defects and problems with kidneys and bones

Brain and central nervous system problems

Problems with the brain and central nervous system may include:

  • Poor coordination or balance
  • Intellectual disability, learning disorders and delayed development
  • Poor memory
  • Trouble with attention and with processing information
  • Difficulty with reasoning and problem-solving
  • Difficulty identifying consequences of choices
  • Poor judgment skills
  • Jitteriness or hyperactivity
  • Rapidly changing moods

Social and behavioral issues

Problems in functioning, coping and interacting with others may include:

  • Difficulty in school
  • Trouble getting along with others
  • Poor social skills
  • Trouble adapting to change or switching from one task to another
  • Problems with behavior and impulse control
  • Poor concept of time
  • Problems staying on task
  • Difficulty planning or working toward a goal

When to see a doctor

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:

  • Alcohol enters your bloodstream and reaches your developing fetus by crossing the placenta
  • Alcohol causes higher blood alcohol concentrations in your developing baby than in your body because a fetus metabolizes alcohol slower than an adult does
  • Alcohol interferes with the delivery of oxygen and optimal nutrition to your baby's developing tissues and organs, including the brain

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.

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:

  • You are pregnant
  • You think you might be pregnant
  • You're trying to become pregnant

Problem behaviors not present at birth that can result from having fetal alcohol syndrome (secondary disabilities) may include:

  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Conduct disorder, which includes aggression, violation of rules and laws, and inappropriate social conduct
  • Alcohol or drug misuse
  • Mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders
  • Problems in school, with independent living and with employment
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors

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:

  • Don't drink alcohol if you're trying to get pregnant. If you haven't already stopped drinking, stop as soon as you know you're pregnant or if you even think you might be pregnant. It's never too late to stop drinking during your pregnancy, but the sooner you stop, the better it is for your baby.
  • Continue to avoid alcohol throughout your pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome is completely preventable in children whose mothers don't drink during pregnancy.
  • Consider giving up alcohol during your childbearing years if you're sexually active and you're having unprotected sex. Many pregnancies are unplanned, and damage can occur in the earliest weeks of pregnancy.
  • If you have an alcohol problem, get help before you get pregnant. Get professional help to determine your level of dependence on alcohol and to develop a treatment plan.
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