What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Women who drink alcohol during pregnancy can give birth to babies with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. These disorders range from mild to severe. They can be behavioral, physical, related to learning, or all of the above.
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a severe form of the condition. People with FAS may have problems with their vision, hearing, memory, attention span, and abilities to learn and communicate. While the defects vary from one person to another, the damage is often permanent.
Causes of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, some of that alcohol easily passes across the placenta to the fetus. The body of a developing fetus does not process alcohol the same way as an adult’s. The alcohol is more concentrated in the fetus, and can prevent enough nutrition and oxygen from getting to the fetus’ vital organs.
Damage can be done in the first few weeks of pregnancy when a woman might not yet know that she is pregnant. The risk increases if the mother is a heavy drinker.
According to many studies, alcohol use appears to be most harmful during the first three months of pregnancy. However, consumption of alcohol during any time during pregnancy can be harmful.
Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Since fetal alcohol syndrome covers a wide range of problems, there are many possible symptoms. The severity of these symptoms ranges from mild to severe, and can include:
- a small head
- a smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose, small eyes, a very thin upper lip, or other abnormal facial features
- below-average height and weight
- lack of focus
- poor coordination
- delayed development and problems in thinking, speech, movement and social skills
- poor judgment
- problems seeing or hearing
- learning disabilities
- mental retardation
- heart problems
- kidney defects and abnormalities
- deformed limbs or fingers
- mood swings
Diagnosing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Early diagnosis can increase a positive outcome in the child. Talk to your doctor if you think your child might have FAS. Let your doctor know if you drank while you were pregnant.
A physical exam of the baby may show a heart murmur or other heart problems. As the baby matures, there may be other signs that help confirm the diagnosis, these include:
- slow rate of growth
- abnormal facial features or bone growth
- hearing and vision problems
- slow language acquisition
- small head size
- poor coordination
To diagnose an individual with FAS, the doctor must determine that he or she has abnormal facial features, slower than normal growth, and central nervous system problems. These nervous system problems could be physical or behavioral. They might present as hyperactivity, lack of coordination or focus or learning disabilities.
Treating Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
While FAS is incurable, some symptoms can be treated. The earlier the diagnosis, the more progress is likely to be made.
Special education and social services can help very young children. For example, speech therapists can work with toddlers to help them learn to talk.
Children with FAS will benefit from a stable and loving home. FAS children can be even more sensitive to disruptions in routine than an average child. FAS children are especially likely to develop problems with violence and substance abuse later in life if they are exposed to violence or abuse at home. These children do well with a regular routine, simple rules to follow, and rewards for positive behavior.
Depending on what type of symptoms the FAS child exhibits, he or she may need many doctor or specialist visits. There are no medications that specifically treat FAS. However, several medications may address symptoms.
These medications include:
- antidepressants to treat problems with sadness and negativity
- stimulants to treat lack of focus, hyperactivity, and other behavioral problems
- neuroleptics to treat anxiety and aggression
- anti-anxiety drugs to treat anxiety
Behavioral training may also help FAS children. For instance, friendship training teaches kids social skills for interacting with their peers. Executive function training may improve skills such as self-control, reasoning, and understanding cause and effect. Children with FAS might also need academic help. For example, a math tutor could help a child who struggles in school.
Parents and siblings might also need help in dealing with the challenges this condition can cause. This help can come through talk therapy or support groups. Parents can also receive parental training tailored to the needs of those with FAS children. Parental training teaches you how to best interact with and care for your FAS child.
Some parents and their FAS children seek alternative treatments outside the medical establishment. These include healing practices, such as massage and acupuncture (the placement of thin needles into key body areas). Alternative treatments also include movement techniques, such as exercise or yoga.
Preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Fetal alcohol syndrome does not occur if the mother refrains from drinking during pregnancy. If you are a woman with a drinking problem who wants to get pregnant, seek help from a health care professional. If you are a light or social drinker, do not drink if you think you might become pregnant anytime soon. Remember, the effects of alcohol can make a mark during the first few weeks of a pregnancy.