Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the term used for problems a child may have if you drink alcohol during pregnancy. These problems may be physical, mental, or behavioral. The most common problems caused by FAS are mental retardation, stunted growth, and face deformities.
Fetal alcohol effects (FAE) are a less severe set of the same symptoms.
FAS/FAE can happen when a pregnant woman drinks beer, wine, or hard liquor. Any amount of drinking during pregnancy can cause FAS/FAE. The more a woman drinks, the greater the chance her baby will be born with problems. Drinking any alcohol during pregnancy is not recommended. The risk of FAS is especially high if you have 7 or more drinks per week or 5 in one day.
The time during the pregnancy when the mother drinks affects the risk to the baby and the kinds of problems the baby might have. Drinking during the first 3 months (first trimester) is the most serious. Babies exposed to alcohol at this time often have small brains and physical problems, and develop severe mental retardation.
Miscarriage is the major risk in the next 3 months (second trimester). In the last trimester babies exposed to alcohol develop learning problems, mental retardation, and behavioral problems.
Not all babies whose mothers drink during pregnancy are born with FAS/FAE. It is not understood why some babies are born with problems and others are not.
Children born with FAS or FAE have one or more of the following problems.
Birth Weight and Growth Problems
Face and Mouth Deformities
Intelligence and Learning Problems
Behavioral Problems and Mental Illness
Many children with FAS/FAE have behavior problems in school. More than a third of children with FAS develop drug and alcohol problems by adolescence and the young adult years. As people with FAS/FAE get older, they have high rates of psychological problems. Many have anger control problems and may be violent. They are at high risk for getting into trouble with the law.
A healthcare provider can diagnose FAS/FAE by:
There is no cure for FAS or FAE.
Certain problems caused by FAS or FAE can be helped with treatment. For example, heart problems can often be helped by surgery. Plastic surgery can help correct severe face deformities.
For mental retardation and learning disabilities, special education classes in school can help. All public schools in the United States offer special classes for retarded and learning disabled students between the ages of 3 and 19.
For children and adults with behavior problems and psychological difficulties, treating the specific problem helps. For example, seeing a mental health therapist can help children and adults deal with depression, learning disabilities, aggression, or anger.
The effects of FAS/FAE last throughout the child’s life. A baby with FAS/FAE may be irritable, nervous, and very sensitive to sound and light, and may cry often. The problems change as the child grows up. Problems with aggressive behavior, depression, psychosis, and substance abuse commonly start in the teenage years.
FAS/FAE can only be prevented by not drinking during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant.
If you suspect that a baby or child has FAS/FAE, or any of the problems listed above, get professional help. Children with FAS/FAE need early diagnosis and medical treatment.
If you know a woman who is pregnant and drinking, talk with her about stopping drinking. If she has a problem with repeated drinking, a medical or mental health professional may be able to help her quit.
For more information, contact:
National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS)
1815 H Street, Suite 1000
Washington, DC 20007
Tel: (202) 785-4585
Web site: http://www.nofas.org/