Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Medically Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on August 28, 2022
4 min read

Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. These are a group of birth defects that can happen when a pregnant woman drinks alcohol. Other fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASDs) include:

  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Alcohol-related birth defects
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder
  • Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure

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

The symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome tend to get worse as a person grows up.

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 or break down alcohol, so it can easily get to and damage the baby's organs. That can cause:

  • Miscarriage. You can lose your baby during the early few months of pregnancy.
  • Stillbirth. You can lose your baby in the womb during the second half of your pregnancy.
  • Preterm labor. Drinking can make your baby arrive too early. Premature babies can have many health problems. Those often include breathing trouble and other issues linked to  immature lungs or developmental problems due to underdeveloped brain or brain abnormalities.
  • Birth defects. Some babies are born with heart or kidney problems. Others may have trouble seeing or hearing or other health issues.

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.

Fetal alcohol syndrome can have many symptoms, including:

Physical defects:

  • Small head and brain size
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Joint, limb, and finger deformities
  • Distinctive facial features like small eyes, thin upper lip, and a ridge between the nose and upper lip

Neurological problems:

  • Learning problems
  • Coordination and balance problems
  • Trouble reasoning
  • Hyperactivity
  • Moodiness

Behavioral issues:

  • Poor social skills
  • Difficulty in school
  • Poor impulse control

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

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

The symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome 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

Therapy can help with behavior and educational problems. Parents can also get training to help their child. There are no medications to treat fetal alcohol syndrome specifically. But certain medicines can help with symptoms like hyperactivity, inability to focus, or anxiety.

These medications include:

  • Antidepressants to treat problems with moods, sleep irritability, aggression, and problems in school.
  • Anti-anxiety drugs.
  • Stimulants to treat behavioral issues such as hyperactivity, trouble concentrating, and poor impulse control.
  • Neuroleptics used to treat behavioral problems as well as aggression and anxiety.

 A child with fetal alcohol syndrome needs to be watched closely to see if their treatment needs to be adjusted.

Complementary therapies may bring some benefits. They  include: 

  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Exercise
  • Yoga

Treatment to help a mother with alcohol addiction is also recommended. Not only can this prevent fetal alcohol syndrome disorders in future children, it can also provide the mother with parenting skills to help their child with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Fetal alcohol syndrome can result in behavioral problems later in life. These include:

  • Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health issues
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors
  • Inability to stay in school or finish school
  • Problems living independently or with employment
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Behavioral problems such as aggression, rule or law breaking, and inappropriate social conduct
  • Untimely death by suicide, accident, or homicide
  • If you think you have a problem with alcohol, get help before you get pregnant. There are professionals who specialize in addiction treatment.
  • Don’t drink alcohol while you’re trying to get pregnant. If you are still drinking when you find out you are pregnant or think you might be pregnant, stop immediately.
  • Avoid alcohol while you’re pregnant. Children of mothers who don’t drink alcohol while they’re pregnant won’t develop fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • If you’re sexually active and having unprotected sex, think about giving up alcohol entirely.