Fetal alcohol syndrome is growth, mental, and physical problems that may occur in a baby when a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy.
Alcohol in pregnancy; Alcohol-related birth defects; Fetal alcohol effects; FAS
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Using or abusing alcohol during pregnancy can cause the same risks as using alcohol in general. However, it poses extra risks to the unborn baby. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it easily passes across the placenta to the fetus. Because of this, drinking alcohol can harm the baby's development.
A pregnant woman who drinks any amount of alcohol is at risk for having a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. No "safe" level of alcohol use during pregnancy has been established. Larger amounts of alcohol appear to increase the problems. Binge drinking is more harmful than drinking small amounts of alcohol.
Timing of alcohol use during pregnancy is also important. Alcohol use appears to be the most harmful during the first 3 months of pregnancy; however, drinking alcohol any time during pregnancy can be harmful.
A baby with fetal alcohol syndrome may have the following symptoms:
Poor growth while the baby is in the womb and after birth
Decreased muscle tone and poor coordination
Delayed development and problems in three or more major areas: thinking, speech, movement, or social skills
Women who are pregnant or who are trying to get pregnant should avoid drinking any amount of alcohol. Pregnant women with alcoholism should join an alcohol abuse rehabilitation program and be checked closely by a health care provider throughout pregnancy.
The following organizations may offer assistance:
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency -- www.ncadd.org
National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service -- 1-800-662-4357
The following organizations are good resources for information on alcoholism:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - www.samhsa.gov
The outcome for infants with fetal alcohol syndrome varies. Almost none of these babies have normal brain development.
Infants and children with fetal alcohol syndrome have many different problems, which can be difficult to manage. Children do best if they are diagnosed early and referred to a team of health care providers who can work on educational and behavioral strategies that fit the child's needs.
Problems in the structure of the head, eyes, nose, or mouth
Poor growth before birth
Slow growth and poor coordination after birth
Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you are drinking alcohol regularly or heavily, and are finding it difficult to cut back or stop. Also, call if you are drinking alcohol in any amount while you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
Avoiding alcohol during pregnancy prevents fetal alcohol syndrome. Counseling can help women who have already had a child with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Sexually active women who drink heavily should use birth control and control their drinking behaviors, or stop using alcohol before trying to get pregnant.
Carlo WA. Fetal alcohol syndrome. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 100.2.
Cunningham FG, Leveno KJ, Bloom SL, et al. Teratology and medications that affect the fetus. In: Cunningham FG, Leveno KJ, Bloom SL, et al, eds. Williams Obstetrics. 23rd ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2010:chap 14.
A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, and David R. Eltz. Previously reviewed by Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine (8/15/2011)