Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Signs and Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on May 29, 2024
6 min read

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. These are a group of conditions present at birth that can happen when a pregnant person 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.

Partial fetal alcohol syndrome

A child is considered to have partial fetal alcohol syndrome when they have been exposed to alcohol in the womb and have some but not all of the traits linked to FAS.

Alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder

Those with alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder do not have the facial differences typical of FAS but do have problems in brain and nervous system development and may show signs of:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Behavioral issues
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Conditions of the brain or nervous system

Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure

This disorder is associated with alcohol exposure before birth and affects thinking and reasoning as well as self-control and social development.


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. 

Some of the most severe problems happen when a pregnant person 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 even moderate amounts of alcohol can disturb this process.

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

No amount or type of alcohol is safe to drink if you are trying to get pregnant, think you may be pregnant, or are carrying a baby. Fetal alcohol syndrome is just one of the risks of drinking during pregnancy. Others include:

  • 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 an underdeveloped brain or brain abnormalities.
  • Some babies are born with heart or kidney problems. Others may have trouble seeing or hearing or other health issues.

Fetal alcohol syndrome can have many symptoms, including:

Physical differences

  • Small head and brain size
  • Vision or hearing issues
  • Joint, limb, and finger differences
  • Distinctive facial features such as small eyes, thin upper lip, and a ridge between the nose and upper lip
  • Shorter height and lower body weight
  • Kidney, heart, or bone problems

Neurological symptoms

  • Memory issues
  • Language and speech delays
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Challenges with math
  • Coordination and balance issues
  • Trouble reasoning
  • Moodiness

Behavioral symptoms

  • Hyperactivity
  • Problems with attention
  • Impulse or anger control issues
  • Difficulty sleeping or self-soothing

There is no lab test that can prove a child has fetal alcohol syndrome. Many of its symptoms can seem like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (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

Fetal alcohol syndrome can't be cured. However, recognizing the problem early and getting treatment for symptoms of the disorder can improve outcomes for your child. 

This might include:

  • Special education or other school services to help with learning and behavioral issues
  • Speech, occupational, and physical therapists to help with coordination and balance as well as language and social skills
  • Medication and monitoring of medical issues such as vision, hearing, or heart problems
  • Life skills training
  • Family and individual counseling

The most effective treatments for fetal alcohol syndrome target your child's specific issues. 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 such as hyperactivity, inability to focus, or anxiety.

Medications for fetal alcohol syndrome

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

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

Therapeutic treatments for fetal alcohol syndrome

  • Friendship training to teach kids with fetal alcohol syndrome social skills such as sharing and joining groups
  • Support groups for parents to learn specific interventions for children with challenging behavioral issues due to FAS
  • Math and educational tutoring and support
  • Sessions for parents and children on self-control and executive function (such as organization, planning, and working with others) 

Complementary therapies may also bring some benefits. They include: 

  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Exercise and yoga
  • Art therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Meditation or relaxation therapy for sleep issues and anxiety

Addiction treatment for parents

Treatment to help a mother with alcohol addiction is also recommended. Not only can this prevent fetal alcohol syndrome disorders in future children, but it can also provide 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 or finish school
  • Difficulty living independently or staying employed
  • 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. Some professionals 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.

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the most severe form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a range of conditions caused by exposure to alcohol in the womb. FAS symptoms include distinctive facial features, lower-than-average height and weight, and problems with brain and nervous system development. There is no single test for fetal alcohol syndrome (a lifelong condition), but early detection and treatment can greatly improve the lives of children with FAS.

Can sperm cause fetal alcohol syndrome?

It's not known whether a father's drinking affects their sperm or contributes to fetal alcohol syndrome at conception. Research is being done to find out.

Does fetal alcohol syndrome go away?

No, but early diagnosis and treatment for specific FAS symptoms can greatly improve your child's life.

Does fetal alcohol syndrome get worse with age?

Yes. As children with FAS get older, they might develop behavioral problems, have problems learning and retaining information, or struggle with attention and hyperactivity, all of which may worsen as they mature. Fetal alcohol syndrome can also cause milestone (developmental) delays.