Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: The Other Reason To Pass On The Martini


Fetal alcohol syndrome or FAS in babies and children is the direct fallout of maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy. It manifests in the form of genetic anomalies, permanent brain damage, prenatal or postnatal growth restriction, abnormal facial features or bone growth. While FAS is incurable, early diagnosis, intervention treatment services may help.

All About Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

It is a no-brainer that you shouldn’t mix pregnancy and alcohol. They just don’t go together. In fact, study data suggests that alcohol actually thwarts your efforts to get pregnant.

More than 50 percent reduction in the probability of conception during a menstrual cycle has been observed in women who consumed alcohol. Additionally, caffeine consumption amplifies the effects of alcohol all the more in such cases.1

Alcohol consumption before and during pregnancy is also linked to low birth weight. According to a study involving 263 women who delivered live children, consuming an average of one ounce of absolute alcohol daily before pregnancy was associated with an average decrease in birth weight of 91 grams in the infant. When the same amount was consumed in late pregnancy, it led to a decrease of 160 grams in the infant’s body weight on birth.2

Furthermore, alcohol consumption before conception and during pregnancy is also linked to an increased risk of deadly diseases such as childhood leukemia.3

It’s no surprise then that the first thing that any doctor would tell you when you plan a baby is to stop indulging in alcoholic beverages (in addition to starting you on prenatals). But the alcohol-related birth defect you need to be concerned about the most is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which is estimated to affect 119,000 children every year.4

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

When you are pregnant and consume alcohol, it can easily pass on to your unborn baby through the placenta. This is what causes fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), the most severe and visibly recognizable form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). The range of disorders under the FASD umbrella include fetal alcohol syndrome, partial fetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol-related birth defects, alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder, and neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is linked to a wide range of effects including permanent brain damage, genetic anomalies, prenatal or postnatal growth restriction. The most visible manifestation of FAS is certain characteristic dysmorphic facial features such as a small head, a smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose, small and wide-set eyes, extremely thin upper lip or other unusual facial features, below average height and weight, as well as deformed limbs or fingers. These, along with cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and adaptive functioning deficits are some of the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome in babies and children.5

Babies with FAS may also exhibit minor anomalies of the heart and external genitalia.6 They may have lifelong implications of the disease if they have neurodevelopmental impairments associated with it. It can lead to substantial secondary disabilities like academic failure, substance abuse, mental health issues, contact with law enforcement, failure to live independently and procure and maintain jobs.7

What Causes It?

Alcohol use during pregnancy is the only cause of fetal alcohol syndrome. About 10 percent of women around the world consume alcohol during pregnancy and one in 67 women deliver a child with FAS. The only silver lining is that not every woman who consumes alcohol during pregnancy will give birth to a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. According to a study of WHO member states, the rate of this syndrome is recorded to be the highest in the European region and lowest in countries of the eastern Mediterranean region and southeast Asian region.8

The pattern, amount or critical period of prenatal exposure to alcohol leading to the development of FAS is still not clear. However, some other factors that might influence an unborn baby’s susceptibility to the detrimental effects of alcohol also need to be considered. These include variability in the metabolism and genetic background of both mother and fetus, environmental factors, maternal smoking, nutritional status, stress levels and even the father’s lifestyle.9

Interestingly, a study of South African women observed that mothers of children with a fetal alcohol syndrome disorder are less likely to be married and more likely to have a male partner who drank during the pregnancy. The study also exhibited that the blood alcohol concentrations of mothers who gave birth to babies with fetal alcohol syndrome were higher than those who gave birth to those with partial fetal alcohol syndrome.10

Can FAS Be Treated?

The only way to protect your child from fetal alcohol syndrome is to completely abstain from alcohol during the entire course of the pregnancy. If you have a problem with alcohol, it is best to consult a doctor before planning a baby. If you consumed alcohol when you weren’t aware of your pregnancy, make sure you let your ob-gyn know all the details.

While there is no cure for any of the fetal alcohol syndrome disorders, research suggests that early diagnosis and intervention treatment services can make the affected child’s life a lot better. Special education and social services and support from a loving and nurturing family can make a big difference. Medical professionals like mental health specialists, speech therapists, and physical therapists may be able to help in making affected children as independent as possible. Behavior and education therapy, as well as medications like stimulants, may be employed to improve certain symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome.11

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