What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Women who drink alcohol during
pregnancy can give birth to babies with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (sometimes known as FASD). FASD
is the umbrella term for a range of disorders. These disorders can be mild or
severe and can cause physical and mental birth defects. Types of FASD include:
- fetal alcohol
- partial fetal
disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure
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.
What Are the 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 doesn’t process alcohol the same way as an adult
does. 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 any time during pregnancy can be
harmful, according to guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What Are the 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 and wide-set eyes, a very thin upper lip,
or other abnormal facial features
- below average
height and weight
- lack of focus
development and problems in thinking, speech, movement, and social skills
- poor judgment
seeing or hearing
- heart problems
- kidney defects
- deformed limbs
- mood swings
How Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosed?
The earlier the diagnosis, the
better the outcome. 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
facial features or bone growth
- hearing and
- slow language
- small head
To diagnose someone with FAS,
the doctor must determine that they have 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.
What Are the Treatments for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
While FAS is incurable, there
are treatments for some symptoms. The earlier the diagnosis, the more progress can
be made. Depending on the symptoms a child with FAS exhibits, they may need
many doctor or specialist visits. 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. They can be even more sensitive to disruptions
in routine than an average child. Children with FAS 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.
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
drugs to treat anxiety
Behavioral training may also
help. 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 their children. Parental training teaches you
how to best interact with and care for your child.
Some parents and their children
seek alternative treatments outside of 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.
How Can I Prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
You can avoid fetal alcohol
syndrome by not drinking alcohol during pregnancy. If you’re a woman with a
drinking problem who wants to get pregnant, seek help from a doctor. If you’re
a light or social drinker, don’t 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.