Debra Wood, RN
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) belongs to a group of disorders called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. It is caused when a woman drinks
during pregnancy. The alcohol can cause birth and developmental defects in the baby. These defects make up FAS.
Alcohol can cross from the mother's blood to the baby's blood. It is passed through the placenta. Even a small amount of alcohol can damage the fetus. It is not known how much alcohol it takes to cause defects. Social, binge, moderate, and heavy drinking all have a negative effect on fetal development.
All types of alcohol, including beer and wine, can cause birth defects.
Factors that increase your baby's chance of FAS include:
Birth and developmental defects depend on when the fetus was exposed to alcohol and how much alcohol was consumed.
Babies with FAS may have the following physical symptoms:
As the infant grows, other symptoms may develop, including:
Children do not outgrow these effects. Teens and adults often experience social and emotional problems. They may develop secondary conditions, which include:
You will be asked about your alcohol intake while pregnant. The child's growth will be assessed. A physical exam will be done. The diagnosis is based on:
Some children with this condition do not have the typical physical features. Their condition is described as:
An early diagnosis can help your child get the proper services.
There is no specific medical treatment for this condition. Early intervention is helpful, as well as a supportive, nurturing home. The doctor may recommend hearing and vision testing, as well as testing for any other medical problems related to FAS.
Professional support helps a family cope with caring for a child with birth defects. Services include respite care and parent training. You can learn ways to handle behavioral problems and stress management techniques.
Programs designed to meet your child's needs can help improve learning. For example, messages may need to be repeated. Tasks may need to be broken down into smaller steps.
A supportive environment includes:
Efforts to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome are important.
National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Greater Toronto Area Intergroup
Women's Health Matters
Chaudhuri JD. Alcohol and the developing fetus—A review.
Med Sci Monit. 2000;6(5):1031-1041.
Drinking and your pregnancy. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Available at:
Accessed June 6, 2016.
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:
http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114397/Fetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorder. Updated June 10, 2016. Accessed September 28, 2016.
Nayak RB, Murthy P. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Prenatal exposure to alcohol.
Alcohol Res Health. 2000;24(1):32-41.
Thackray H, Tifft C. Fetal alcohol syndrome.
Pediatr Rev. 2001;22(2):47-55.
Treatment and support.
National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome website. Available at:
Accessed June 6, 2016.
Last reviewed June 2016 by Kari Kassir, MD
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