Learn About Our Walk-In Process

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Causes, Diagnosis, Treatments, & Prevention

Medically Reviewed

Up to Date

This article was reviewed by a medical professional to guarantee the delivery of accurate and up-to- date information. View our research policy.

Last Updated - 06/21/2024

View our editorial policy
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, help is available. Speak with a Recovery Advocate by calling (614) 362-1686 now.

Key Takeaways

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the most severe form of a condition that exists within a group of ailments known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs).
  • FAS causes a variety of physical, cognitive, and behavioral difficulties that last for a child’s entire life. 
  • FAS occurs when a fetus is exposed to alcohol during pregnancy.
  • Global prevalence rates of FAS are about 0.15% but can be significantly higher in certain regions.
  • FAS is characterized by distinctive facial features, growth deficiencies, and central nervous system abnormalities.
  • Diagnosis of FAS involves thoroughly evaluating physical, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms and requires a multidisciplinary approach.
  • There is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy; complete abstinence is the only prevention.
  • FAS treatment strategies include medical interventions, therapeutic management, and supportive lifestyle and care strategies.
  • Personal preventive measures include abstinence from alcohol for those pregnant or trying to conceive and early intervention for alcohol dependence.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?  

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the most severe form of a broader category of conditions known as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs). FAS is characterized by a range of physical, cognitive, and behavioral difficulties that arise as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure. 

These difficulties will last for the child’s entire life; there is no cure for FAS (though there are a few treatments, which we’ll discuss later). 

However, while there is no cure for FAS, it can be prevented by simply abstaining from alcohol during pregnancy. This aligns with the guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which stress the critical role of avoiding alcohol to prevent the spectrum of disorders under FASDs, including FAS. 

What Are the Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

While the specific symptoms individuals with FAS demonstrate may vary on a case-by-case basis, a few of the most common symptoms are detailed below. 

Physical Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The primary physical symptoms of FAS include: 

  • Facial Abnormalities: Some of the most common facial abnormalities include a smooth philtrum (the groove between the nose and upper lip), thin upper lip, and small eye openings.
  • Growth Deficiencies: Children with FAS often have lower birth weights and may experience growth delays, resulting in short stature.
  • Organ Malformations: Heart, kidney, and other organ abnormalities can occur in children suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
  • Central Nervous System (CNS) Problems: Brain abnormalities, such as a smaller-than-average brain size, are unfortunately common among children diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Cognitive Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Cognitive symptoms of FAS vary, but some of the most common include:

  • Intellectual Disabilities: Many children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome display reduced IQ and learning disabilities.
  • Memory Problems: Difficulty with memory and retaining information are common symptoms of children with FAS.
  • Attention Deficits: Some children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome suffer problems with attention and hyperactivity (similar to ADHD).

Behavioral Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The behavioral symptoms of FAS may take some time to become apparent, but they generally include:

  • Poor Social Skills: Difficulty in social interactions and understanding social cues commonly occur in children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
  • Behavioral Problems: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome often causes children to struggle with impulse control, exhibit poor judgment, and have difficulty adapting to change.
  • Difficulty in School: Learning disabilities, poor academic performance, and trouble with problem-solving and abstract thinking are common problems associated with FAS.

What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome? 

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome occurs when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol. 

Instead of only affecting the mother, the alcohol consumed can cross the placenta and affect the developing fetus. Among other things, the alcohol consumed constricts blood vessels, reducing blood flow and nutrients to the placenta and fetus. It also produces toxic byproducts that can accumulate in the baby’s brain cells.

There is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy, and the risk is present at any stage of pregnancy.  

How Common Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

The prevalence of FAS varies from one place to another. 

Estimates of FAS prevalence in the U.S. range from 0.2 to 1.5 cases per 1,000 live births. However, when considering the broader spectrum of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), which includes FAS along with other related conditions, the prevalence is much higher. Estimates for FASD range from 1% to 5% of the population (10 to 50 cases per 1,000 live births) 

Meanwhile, the global prevalence of FAS is estimated to be around 1.5 cases per 1,000 live births, according to a study published in The Lancet in 2017. Again, FASD rates are higher, with a global prevalence estimated at 7.7 cases per 1,000 live births .

These numbers can be significantly higher in certain regions, with South Africa reporting rates as high as 11.1%. By contrast, countries with religious prohibitions against alcohol show lower rates.

How Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosed?

Diagnosing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is an intricate process that involves evaluating a range of physical, behavioral, and neurodevelopmental indicators. 

The diagnostic criteria have evolved since the first formal recognition of FAS, with the most recent guidelines providing clarity for distinguishing among the four distinct subtypes within fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Updated clinical guidelines emphasize a multidisciplinary approach to diagnosis.

Key components of the diagnostic procedure include:

  • Review of maternal alcohol use history, acknowledging that direct confirmation may not always be possible.
  • Comprehensive evaluations to identify physical symptoms such as distinct facial features, growth deficiencies, and central nervous system abnormalities.
  • Assessment of cognitive and behavioral symptoms, including learning disabilities, attention deficits, and behavioral disorders.
  • Utilization of clinical assessment tools and criteria, with a focus on the most severely affected cases.

Early assessment and diagnosis are crucial as they can mitigate the risk and impact of secondary conditions like mental health disorders, addiction, and social deficits. Healthcare professionals are vital to identifying and managing FASD, ensuring that affected individuals receive the necessary support and interventions.

Treatment Strategies for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

While there is no cure for FAS, addressing symptoms through targeted therapies and interventions can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals with FAS. Early intervention is critical for improving the functional abilities of children with FAS. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines several therapeutic interventions that may benefit individuals with FAS. These include things like:

  • Biofeedback
  • Auditory Training
  • Relaxation Therapy
  • Visual Imagery
  • Meditation  

Additionally, creative art therapy, yoga, and exercise are recommended to support physical and mental well-being.

In all cases, it is important to work with healthcare providers to devise a personalized treatment plan.

Parent education and training are also fundamental components of therapeutic intervention. High-quality caregiving and a stable, nurturing home environment serve as protective factors against secondary conditions in children with FAS. Caregivers must maintain clear and concise communication, using visual aids or technology when appropriate, to assist with planning and organization. 

Recognizing the lifelong nature of FAS, ongoing support and adaptations are essential for promoting independence and thriving in adulthood.

Note that children diagnosed with FAS may be eligible for state-provided early intervention services. These services are designed to support developmental milestones and mitigate the condition’s impact.

Lifestyle and Care Strategies for Managing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Living with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) requires comprehensive support and tailored lifestyle strategies to manage its multifaceted challenges. Caregivers and individuals with FAS can benefit from various supportive measures designed to enhance quality of life and promote positive outcomes. 

FASD United emphasizes the importance of structured environments and routines, which help individuals with FAS to navigate daily life more effectively. Among other things, the following strategies are often helpful for managing children with FAS:

  • Structured Routines: Consistent daily schedules provide predictability, reducing anxiety and helping to manage behavioral issues.
  • Carefully Devised Educational Strategies: Tailored educational approaches and the use of manipulatives can aid in learning and social development.
  • Developmental Support: Engaging in activities that match the individual’s developmental age rather than chronological age can lead to better understanding and skill acquisition.
  • Positive Behavioral Interventions: Implementing positive behavioral interventions can address specific behavioral challenges while fostering a supportive environment.
  • Family and Community Support: Building a support network through community resources, support groups, and counseling can provide invaluable assistance to families and individuals with FAS.

Start Your Alcoholism Recovery Today

Overcoming Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) might seem impossible. But that’s not the case. Many people can recover by going to a specialized rehab center that uses proven treatments. 

Alcohol treatment uses various methods to help with withdrawal and addiction. With these interventions, people can find health and happiness in sobriety.

Alcohol addiction treatments may include:

  • Medication-assisted treatment: This treatment uses medicines to reduce AUD symptoms like cravings and withdrawal.
  • Individual and group therapy: Talking with therapists either one-on-one or in groups can help people recover. Methods include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
  • Relapse prevention programs: These programs teach people how to avoid relapse, understand the process and develop healthy coping methods.
  • Family therapy: AUDs affect the entire family. Working with a family therapist can start the path to healing the relationships damaged by alcohol misuse.
  • Recreational therapies: These therapies help people in recovery find joy in their new, sober life, improving their physical and mental health.

At Orlando Recovery Center Drug and Alcohol Rehab, we offer many alcohol addiction treatment options led by trained medical professionals. Our levels of care include medical detox, inpatient rehabilitation and intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). No matter where you are in your recovery journey, our team will be there every step of the way. Start your admission today.


Get your life back

Recovery is possible. Begin your journey today

Call Us Now Admissions Check Insurance

What To Expect

When you call our team, you will speak to a Recovery Advocate who will answer any questions and perform a pre-assessment to determine your eligibility for treatment. If eligible, we will create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. If The Recovery Village is not the right fit for you or your loved one, we will help refer you to a facility that is. All calls are 100% free and confidential.

All calls are 100% free and confidential.