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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Children

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KEY POINTS

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a set of physical, behavioral, and learning problems that your baby may have if you drink alcohol while you are pregnant.
  • Some problems caused by FAS can be treated. For example, heart problems and face deformities can often be helped by surgery. Special education classes in school can help if your child has learning or behavior problems. Seeing a mental health therapist can help you and your child deal with depression, learning disabilities, aggression, or anger.
  • FAS can only be prevented by not drinking alcohol during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant.

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What is fetal alcohol syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a set of physical, behavioral, and learning problems that your baby may have if you drink alcohol while you are pregnant.

What is the cause?

Drinking any amount of beer, wine, or hard liquor while you are pregnant can cause FAS. The more alcohol you drink, the greater the chance your baby will be born with problems. There is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant.

The problems caused by drinking alcohol are different throughout your pregnancy. If you drink alcohol:

  • In the first 3 months, your baby may be born with a small brain, physical problems, and severe learning problems.
  • In the next 3 months, there is a greater risk that you will have a miscarriage.
  • In the last 3 months, your baby may be born with learning, growth, and behavior problems.

Not all babies whose mothers drink alcohol during pregnancy are born with FAS. It is not understood why some babies are born with problems and others are not.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • A small head size, low body weight, delayed growth, and short height as an adult
  • Flat shape of face and nose, small, wide set eyes, thin upper lip, and mouth problems such as a cleft palate
  • Seizures
  • Bone, joint, muscle, kidney or heart problems
  • Repeated ear infections or hearing problems
  • Vision problems
  • Clumsiness and poor balance
  • Poor sleep
  • Being slow to learn or unable to talk, walk, read, or write
  • Problems paying attention and remembering things
  • Being unable to keep still
  • Poor social skills and problems getting along with others

More than a third of children with FAS develop drug and alcohol problems by the time they are young adult. Many have anger control problems and may be violent. They are at high risk for getting into trouble with the law.

How is it diagnosed?

A healthcare provider can diagnose FAS by:

  • Reviewing your pregnancy and birth history
  • Giving your child a physical exam
  • Testing your child’s abilities to respond, communicate, move, and learn
  • Measuring facial features

How is it treated?

It is very important to get help early. Young children who get help early may need less help when they are older.

Some problems caused by FAS can be treated. For example, heart problems can often be helped by surgery. Plastic surgery can help correct severe face deformities.

Special education classes can help if your child has learning or behavior problems. There are many types of services that schools offer through special education. These include:

  • Evaluation and assessment of your child's abilities and needs
  • Special classes and specially trained teachers and aides
  • Classroom accommodations such as books in large print for a visually impaired child or a special desk for a child with a physical disability
  • Assistive technologies such as special computers or keyboards, digital recorders, or hearing devices
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Occupational therapy for problems with movement and senses such as touch, body awareness, sight, sound
  • Physical therapy for children with bone, muscle, and joint problems

All public schools in the United States offer special classes for students with learning problems who are between the ages of 3 and 19.

Seeing a mental health therapist can help you and your child deal with depression, learning disabilities, aggression, anger, or hyperactivity.

Medicine may be prescribed to help with some behaviors and symptoms.

How can I help my child?

FAS can only be prevented by not drinking alcohol during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant. To avoid any risk of problems from alcohol, do not drink while you are pregnant. The best time to stop drinking alcohol is before you get pregnant. If you are pregnant and still drinking, try to stop now. Ask for support from your family, friends, or healthcare provider to help stop drinking during your pregnancy.

If you suspect that your baby has FAS, or any of the problems listed above, get professional help. Children with FAS need early diagnosis and medical treatment.

See a mental health professional to help you cope with your stress. Most parents find advice on handling difficult behavior and feelings very helpful.

You may want to contact:

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2018-05-31
Last reviewed: 2019-10-17
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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