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Health & Baby

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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

WebMD Feature

Like any syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a group of signs and symptoms that appear together and indicate a certain condition. In the case of FAS, the signs and symptoms are birth defects that result from a woman's use of alcohol during her pregnancy. Among their symptoms, children with FAS may grow less quickly than other children, have facial abnormalities and have problems with their central nervous systems, including mental retardation.

In the United States, FAS is one of the leading causes of birth defects and is thought to be the most common cause of preventable mental retardation. Each year between 5,000 and 12,000 American babies are born with the condition. FAS is sometimes called fetal alcohol abuse syndrome.


Usually, FAS is diagnosed only when a child has the following major clinical manifestations, or signs:

  • Growth retardation
  • Characteristic facial features, such as:
    • Small eyes with drooping upper lids
    • Short, upturned nose
    • Flattened cheeks
    • Small jaw
    • Thin upper lip
    • Flattened philtrum (the groove in the middle of the upper lip)
  • Central nervous system problems, including:
    • Mental retardation
    • Hyperactivity
    • Delayed development of gross motor skills such as rolling over, sitting up, crawling and walking
    • Delayed development of fine motor skills such as grasping objects with the thumb and index finger, and transferring objects from one hand to the other
    • Impaired language development
    • Memory problems, poor judgement, distractibility, impulsiveness
    • Problems with learning
    • Seizures

However, children affected by FAS may have any or all of the signs and symptoms listed above, along with the following:

  • Decreased birth weight
  • Small skull
  • Hearing disorders

Studies have shown that the more severe the physical characteristics of FAS are in a child, the more severe his or her mental impairment tends to be.

Secondary Conditions

Children born with FAS may develop secondary conditions as a result of their syndrome. These secondary conditions can include the following:

  • Mental health problems such as attention deficit disorder, conduct disorder, depression and psychotic episodes.
  • Problems in school, including higher rates of suspension and expulsion due to difficulty getting along with others, disobedience and truancy.
  • Trouble with the law. Those born with FAS may have problems controlling anger and frustration, and problems understanding the motives of others. This may lead to violent behavior. As a result, teenagers and adults with FAS are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system than their peers are. Also, those with FAS can be especially susceptible to persuasion and manipulation, which may lead to unwitting involvement in illegal activities.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse. More than one-third of those with FAS have problems which require inpatient treatment for drugs and/or alcohol abuse at some time in their lives.
  • Difficulty holding a job and living independently.
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