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Health & Pregnancy

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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a group of birth defects that can happen when a pregnant woman drinks alcohol. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe type of the disorder.

FAS and other spectrum disorders affect children differently. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. They can include:

The symptoms of FAS tend to get worse as a person grows up.

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Alcohol -- including wine, beer, and liquor -- is the leading preventable cause of birth defects in the U.S.

In the womb, a baby doesn't have a fully developed liver that can process alcohol, so it can easily get to and damage the baby's organs.

Some of the most severe problems happen when a pregnant woman drinks in the first trimester, when the baby's brain starts to develop. But the second and third trimesters aren’t safe either. The brain is still developing then, and this process can be interrupted by even moderate amounts of alcohol.

There is no "safe" amount of alcohol that pregnant women can drink. And there is no time during pregnancy when it’s considered safe to drink alcohol, either.

Diagnosing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

There is no lab test that can prove a child has FAS. Many of its symptoms can seem like ADHD.

To diagnose FAS, doctors look for unusual facial features, lower-than-average height and/or weight, small head size, problems with attention and hyperactivity, and poor coordination. They also try to find out whether the mother drank while she was pregnant and if so, how much.

The symptoms of FAS can't be cured, but early diagnosis and treatment can improve a child’s development and outlook. Research shows that children do better when they:

  • Are diagnosed before age 6
  • Are in a loving, nurturing, and stable home during their school years
  • Are not exposed to violence
  • Get special education and social services

Treating Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Therapy can help with behavior and educational problems. Parents can also get training to help their child.

Medicines can help manage symptoms like hyperactivity, inability to focus, or anxiety. A child with fetal alcohol syndrome needs to be watched closely to see if their treatment needs to be adjusted.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 15, 2015

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