What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome? December 6th, 2019 Orlando Recovery Center

The Blog

Blog What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

what is fetal alcohol syndrome

Many people believe alcohol isn’t a threat because it’s legal and the majority of people indulge in it once in awhile. But in reality, alcohol is a dangerous drug that can depress the mind and increase your chances of alcoholism. There is a myth out there that alcohol is harmless, even while pregnant.

This is just not the case. There are many risk factors associated with drinking alcohol when pregnant and the outcome can be devastating. When a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy fetal alcohol syndrome can occur.

FASD explained

Fetal alcohol syndrome is no longer the one and only condition that can be the result of drinking alcohol while pregnant. The various conditions are now referred to as FASD – Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define FASD as a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy.

The effects can include physical issues and problems with behavior and learning. FASD affects an estimated 40,000 infants each year, more than Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida, and Muscular Dystrophy.

Any woman who drinks any amount of alcohol during her pregnancy is at risk of having a child with FASD. Some women drink early on in their pregnancy and then stop once they learn they are pregnant, these women are still at risk.

Alcohol can harm an embryo or fetus at any time, even before a woman knows she is pregnant. Women who give birth to a child with FASD are also at a higher risk of giving birth to additional children with FASD.

Types of FASD

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) – This is the most common end of the spectrum and the condition that is most widely known. People with FAS have abnormal facial features, growth problems, and central nervous system issues. They can also have problems with learning, memory, communication, attention span, vision, and hearing. It’s not unusual for people with FAS to have trouble learning in school or getting along with their peers.
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) – People who have ARND have intellectual disabilities and issues with behavior and learning. They may not perform well in school and have a hard time with math, memory, impulse control, attention, and judgment.
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD) – People with ARBD have physical disabilities associated with the mother’s alcohol use during pregnancy. These people may experience problems with the heart, kidneys, bones, or with hearing.

How is FASD diagnosed?

Diagnosing these conditions can be difficult because there is no medical test that easily defines them, like a blood test. Additionally, other conditions like ADHD and Williams Syndrome typically have similar symptoms. Currently, there are certain criteria doctors look for in order to diagnose Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but the CDC are working with groups of experts in order to clearly define criteria for the other spectrum disorders.

When diagnosing FAS medical professionals look for the following signs and symptoms:

  • Abnormal facial features – smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip, thin upper lip, and short distance between the inner and outer corners of the eyes. This gives the eyes a wide-spaced appearance.
  • Growth problems – children with FAS have height and weight that are in the 10th percentile or lower. These growth problems can occur before birth.
  • Central nervous system problems – FAS can cause differences in the structure of the brain. A smaller-than-normal head size for a person’s overall height and weight is a sign of this. Another example is functional issues such as poor coordination, poor muscle control, and issues with sucking as an infant. Problems with social skills, motor functioning delays, and cognitive learning disabilities may also be present.
  • Mother’s alcohol use during pregnancy – If confirmed alcohol use during pregnancy is discovered, this can signal FAS. Confirmed absence of alcohol use during pregnancy would rule out FAS diagnosis. Confirmed alcohol use is not necessary if the child meets the other criteria.

Diagnosis of FAS requires the presence of the 3 following criteria:

  1. All three facial features
  2. Growth deficits
  3. Central nervous system issues


FASDs last forever. There is no cure for these disorders, but research shows that early intervention can help improve a child’s development. If you are pregnant and drinking or know someone who is, it’s important to know that you don’t have to live this way. Help is available. Contact us today.

Written by: Kelly Fitzgerald

Kelly is a sober writer based in Cape Coral, Florida, best known for her personal blog The Adventures Of A Sober Señorita. Follow her on Twitter.

Medical Disclaimer: Orlando Recovery Center aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.