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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Causes

FAS is caused by a woman's use of alcohol during her pregnancy. The alcohol that a pregnant woman drinks travels through her bloodstream and across the placenta to her fetus, or developing baby. A fetus's small body breaks down alcohol much more slowly than an adult's body does. So the alcohol level in the fetus's blood is higher than in the mother's blood, and the alcohol remains in the fetus's blood longer. This exposure of the fetus to alcohol causes FAS.

Women who drink frequently (four or five alcoholic beverages or more per day) greatly increase the chances that their babies will have FAS. However, no amount of alcohol use during pregnancy has been proven safe. The effects of FAS may also be seen in children whose mothers drank moderately or lightly during pregnancy. An average of only one drink per day increases a baby's risk of FAS.

Diagnostic and Test Procedures

No definitive diagnostic tests exist to identify FAS. Diagnosis depends on a caregiver's expertise with the specific characteristics associated with FAS. Experts think that, as a result, FAS is widely underdiagnosed.

Treatment

Although there is no cure for FAS, children who are diagnosed early -- preferably by preschool age -- have a better chance of overcoming the condition because from early on their education can be designed to maximize their potential.

Conventional Medicine

Once a child's FAS-related developmental delays are documented, the child is eligible for curriculum modifications, special education classes, supplemental classroom aids and other services through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Because children with FAS are especially sensitive to disruption, a stable, loving home environment is important. However, caring for a child with FAS can be enormously stressful for a family because of the learning and behavioral problems associated with the syndrome. Social services, such as respite care and stress- and behavior-management services, may help families cope.

Prevention of the secondary conditions associated with FAS may be possible with educational, health and psychological services for both the child and the family. This often means working with a variety of professionals, including teachers, social workers, psychologists, physicians and nurses.

Prevention

Pregnant women can prevent FAS by abstaining from alcohol throughout their pregnancies. A woman who drinks alcohol only lightly and occasionally before she realizes she is pregnant might or might not harm her developing baby. Because no amount of alcohol use during pregnancy has been proven safe, any woman who suspects that she might be pregnant should stop drinking immediately. Women who are trying to get pregnant should also avoid alcohol. This applies to all types of alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, wine coolers and liquor (such as whiskey, vodka, tequila, gin and rum).

There is no proof that drinking by a father can cause FAS in his child. However, men who stop drinking during their partner's pregnancy may be better able to help their partners avoid alcohol.

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