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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects can include physical problems and behavioral and learning problems. Typically, a person with FASD has a combination of these problems.
Causes and prevention
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are caused by alcohol use by the mother during pregnancy. The alcohol in the mother’s blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord.
There is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant. There is no time in pregnancy when you can safely drink. Alcohol can cause problems for an unborn baby at any stage of pregnancy, even before a woman knows she is pregnant. All types of alcohol are equally harmful, including all wines and beers.
To prevent FASDs, women should not drink alcohol during pregnancy or when they could become pregnant. This is because a woman could get pregnant and not know it for 4 to 6 weeks.
If a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy, it is never too late for her to stop. Because the baby’s brain is developing throughout pregnancy, the sooner a woman stops drinking alcohol, the safer it will be for her and her baby.
FASDs are preventable if the woman does not drink alcohol during pregnancy.
Signs and symptoms
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a wide variety of effects that can occur in people whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy. These conditions can affect each person differently and can range from mild to severe.
A person with FASD may have:
- Low body weight.
- Bad coordination.
- hyperactive behavior
- Difficulty paying attention.
- Bad memory.
- Difficulties in school (especially in math).
- Learning disabilities.
- Delays in speech and language.
- Intellectual disability or low IQ.
- Poor reasoning ability and judgment.
- Sucking problems and sleeping difficulties in babies.
- Hearing and vision problems.
- Heart, kidney, or bone problems.
- Height shorter than average height.
- Small size head.
- Abnormal facial features, such as a less marked crease between the nose and the upper lip (this crease is called the filter or subnasal crease).
Types of FASD
Different terms are used to describe FASDs, depending on the type of symptom.
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) : This syndrome represents the more severe end of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. People with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) may have abnormal facial features, growth problems, and central nervous system problems. They may also have learning, memory, attention, communication, vision, or hearing problems. They may have a combination of these problems. People with FAS commonly have problems at school and have trouble getting along with others.
- Alcohol- related neurodevelopmental disorder: People with alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder may have intellectual disabilities and behavioral and learning problems. They may not be doing well in school and have trouble with math, memory, judgment, and poor impulse control.
- Alcohol- related birth defects: People with alcohol-related birth defects may have heart, kidney, bone, or hearing problems. They may have a combination of these problems.
- Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure: In 2013, neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure was listed for the first time as a recognized condition in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) of the Association American Psychiatry (APA). A child or youth with neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure will have problems in three areas: (1) Thinking or remembering, that is, the child may have trouble planning or may forget information they have already learned; (2) behavioral problems, such as severe tantrums, mood problems (for example, irritability), and difficulty redirecting attention from one task to another, and (3) problems with daily life, which may include difficulty bathing, dress according to the weather and play with other children. In addition, to have a diagnosis of neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure, the mother must have consumed more than minimal levels of alcohol before the child’s birth, which the APA defines as more than 13 alcoholic drinks per month during pregnancy (meaning any 30-day period during pregnancy) or more than 2 drinks on one occasion.
The term fetal effects of alcohol was previously used to describe intellectual disabilities and behavioral and learning problems in a person whose mother used alcohol during pregnancy. In 1996, the US Institute of Medicine replaced the term effects of alcohol on the fetus with alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder and alcohol-related birth defects.
I looked for help!
If you or your doctor think there may be a problem, ask your doctor to refer you to a specialist (an expert in FASDs), such as a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist, or clinical geneticist. In some cities, there are medical centers where staff have special training in diagnosing and treating children with FASDs. To find doctors and medical centers in your area, visit FASD United’s (formerly NOFAS) National and State Resource Directory.
At the same time you ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist, call your state’s public early childhood intervention system to request a free evaluation to find out if your child is eligible for intervention services. This is sometimes called a Child Find evaluation. You do not need to wait for a diagnosis or a referral from your doctor to make this call.
Where to call to request the free state assessment will depend on your child’s age:
If your child is under 3 years of age , contact your local early intervention system.
If your child is at least 3 years old, contact your local public school system.
Even if your child is not old enough to attend kindergarten or is not enrolled in public school, call your local elementary school or board of education and ask to speak to someone who can help you get your child evaluated.