Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a condition that is linked to drinking alcohol during pregnancy that affects the way the brain of the baby develops. Alcohol can harm the baby at any stage of pregnancy; the risk is higher if the mother is a heavy drinker. The disorders can be mild or severe. FAS is the severe form of the condition. The defects may vary from person to person but they are often permanent.
The exact physical, social, and developmental costs to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome are different for every single child. However, in terms of medical and support costs, the average child with fetal alcohol syndrome needs about $2 million worth of support over the length of their life to deal with the effects of the syndrome. Besides the need for medical and psychological support, people born with fetal alcohol syndrome are more likely to need educational assistance, have trouble with authorities and the law, abuse drugs and alcohol, have difficulty maintaining a job, and end up homeless or requiring monetary support from friends, family, or the government.
In any given year, somewhere between 5,000 and 12,000 babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome ( FAS) in the United States. That is thousands of babies born every year with irreversible birth defects that were fully preventable.
As the name of the syndrome suggests, fetal alcohol syndrome is caused by drinking alcohol while pregnant. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, the alcohol quickly enters the blood stream. That alcohol then enters the body of the developing fetus and crosses the blood brain barrier. Even trace amounts of alcohol at this stage in development can cause behavioral abnormalities and larger quantities can cause physical and developmental abnormalities.
Studies show that roughly 20% – 30% of pregnant women drank alcohol at some point during their pregnancy or while they were attempting to become pregnant, despite the fact that there is no safe time to drink during a pregnancy.
- Studies also show that nearly 5% of pregnant women are active alcoholics.
When an expectant mother drinks alcohol, some of it passes across the placenta to the fetus. The fetus does not process alcohol the same way an adult does since the fetus’ liver is not fully formed. The alcohol is concentrated and prevents enough nutrition and oxygen from getting to the vital organs of the fetus. According to studies, alcohol is most harmful in the first three months of the pregnancy.
Like other syndromes, fetal alcohol syndrome doesn’t have a single identifier. Rather, it must be identified by looking for a group of common symptoms, and possibly questioning the mother about her drinking habits. The symptoms of this syndrome are a variety of birth defects ranging from physical to emotional. Furthermore, while it technically isn’t considered a symptom of fetal alcohol syndrome, because fetal alcohol syndrome is only diagnosed in living babies, fetal death is a common result of alcohol use during pregnancy. Alcohol, especially when abused during pregnancy, can cause physical defects that prevent the child from coming to full term, resulting in a miscarriage or in the child dying in the womb.
The symptoms associated with fetal alcohol syndrome are extensive, permanent, and potentially life threatening. The fetal alcohol syndrome covers a wide range of problems and there are many symptoms. The severity of the symptoms range from mild to severe and may include;
- Small head
- Abnormal facial features such as a thin upper lip, small wide set eyes. A smooth ridge between the upper lip and the infants nose among others
- Lack of focus
- Poor coordination
- Delayed development and difficulties in thinking, speech, social skills and movement
- Problems seeing and hearing
- Intellectual disabilities
- Kidney defects or abnormalities
- Learning disabilities
- Physical growth retardation
- Mental retardation
- Facial abnormalities such as drooping eyes, flattened cheeks and nose, thin lips, and small jaws
- Small skull
- Delayed development
- Motor control difficulties at all stages of life, especially when young
- Memory problems
- Learning difficulties, especially in regards to languages
- A lack of cognitive focus
- Hearing disorders
For better outcome, it is best to have the syndrome diagnosed early. If you think your baby might have FAS talk to your doctor immediately and tell them if you took alcohol during pregnancy. As the child matures, you might notice other signs that help in confirming the diagnosis. They include;
- Slow language acquisition
- Small head with abnormal facial features
- Slow growth rate
- Vision and hearing problems
A physical examination by the doctor might show they have a heart murmur or other problems of the heart. Early diagnosis is vital. Research has shown that people with FAS go on to experience secondary disabilities that were not present at birth that could have been prevented if they received the appropriate support. Some of the secondary disabilities include mental health problems such as depression and attention deficit disorder and drug and alcohol abuse.
If a woman drinks during pregnancy, there is absolutely nothing that a doctor can do to reverse the damage caused by that drinking, no matter how quickly the woman sees a doctor afterward. The only sure fire way to protect the child is never to drink in the first place.
However, if a woman has drunk alcohol, there is still value to speaking with a doctor as soon as possible. While the symptoms are irreversible, early diagnosis can minimize some of the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, especially psychological effects.
Even though FAS is incurable, there are treatments for some of the symptoms. Depending on the symptoms the child exhibits, they might need to visit specialists. Social services and special education are known to help very young children. Speech therapists can help toddlers learn to talk. There are no medications to treat FAS but some medications address the symptoms. Examples are antidepressants to help with sadness and negativity, stimulants to treat hyperactivity and lack of focus and anti-anxiety drugs to treat anxiety. Counseling not only for the child with FAS but for the parents and siblings may help them in dealing with the challenges caused by the condition.
The safest approach is for mums-to-be not to drink alcohol at all if they are pregnant or trying to conceive. Women with alcohol problems but want to get pregnant should seek help from a doctor. Remember that the effects of alcohol can make a mark even during the first weeks of pregnancy.