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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can harm the growing fetus and cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Find out the facts on alcohol and your unborn baby.

What is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)?
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a group of birth defects caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Children with FAS have many physical, mental and behavioral problems.

Babies with FAS are small and underweight. As they get older, they often have trouble with learning, attention, memory, and problem solving. They may have poor coordination, be impulsive, and have speech and hearing problems.

FAS does not go away. Its effects last a lifetime. Adults with FAS often have trouble with work and personal relationships. Many also have legal problems.

FAS cannot be cured. But FAS is 100% preventable by not drinking alcohol while pregnant.

Sometimes children of women who drank alcohol during pregnancy have some, but not all of the problems of FAS. The people are said to have a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). This is a general term for a number of different conditions caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. People with FASD can have physical, mental, behavioral and/or learning disabilities.

What are the most common birth defects or problems of FAS?
Many different types of birth defects are caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

Some common problems in children with FAS include:

  • Faces that do not look normal. They often have thin upper lips, short noses, short eye openings, and flat cheeks.
  • Growth problems. They are often small and short for their age.
  • Brain damage. They may be mentally retarded.
  • Problems with development, learning, and behavior.

Sometimes children have some but not all of the alcohol-related problems of FAS. Experts may say they have fetal alcohol effects (FAE) but not FAS. Doctors also use some other terms for children who have alcohol-related problems. These include:

  • Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD). Children with ARBD do not have FAS. But they do have one or more physical birth defects caused by alcohol. These may be problems with the face, eyes, ears, heart, brain, or limbs.
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND). Children with ARND have some brain damage caused by alcohol. But these children have milder symptoms than kids with FAS or ARBD. So doctors have a harder time diagnosing their problem. They often have trouble in school and have behavior problems.

How does alcohol cause these problems?
When a pregnant woman drinks beer, wine, hard liquor, or other alcoholic drinks, alcohol gets into her blood. This alcohol travels to her baby through the umbilical cord. Once the alcohol is in the baby's body, it can cause birth defects.

Drinking alcohol in the early stages of pregnancy can cause the facial and other physical defects of FAS. Drinking alcohol at any time during pregnancy can slow down the baby's growth and harm the baby's brain. There is no safe time during pregnancy to drink any amount of alcohol. Anytime a pregnant woman drinks alcohol there is a chance the baby will be harmed.

Can FAS be cured?
No. FAS is permanent.

But children with FAS can be helped. Regular medical care, hearing aids and eyeglasses can help these children live more normal lives. Children with FAS need special help at school. As children with FAS get older, they often need special services and support to help them live on their own.

Is it okay to drink a little alcohol during pregnancy?
There is no known safe amount of alcohol a woman can drink while pregnant. Any amount can harm her baby. So it is best not to drink alcohol at all if:

  • you are trying to get pregnant,
  • there is a chance you could be pregnant, or
  • you are pregnant.

Not all pregnant women who drink alcohol have babies with FAS. But the only sure way to prevent FAS, ARBD and ARND is to not drink alcohol during pregnancy. If you are pregnant and have been drinking, stop now to protect your baby. If you need help to stop, talk with your doctor.

For more information...
For more information about fetal alcohol syndrome, contact the National Women's Health Information Center (NWHIC) at 1-800-994-9662 or the following organizations:

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Phone Number(s): (301) 433-3860 (Information Office)

March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation
Phone Number(s): (888) 663-4637

National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Phone Number(s): (800) 666-6327

This information was abstracted from fact sheets prepared by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities.



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Last Updated: Jun 3rd, 2009

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