Fetal alcohol syndrome (patient information)
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Fetal alcohol syndrome
Fetal alcohol syndrome On the Web
Risk calculators and risk factors for Fetal alcohol syndrome
Editor-in-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S.,M.D.  Phone:617-632-7753; Associate Editor-In-Chief: Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan, M.B.B.S.
Fetal alcohol syndrome refers to growth, mental, and physical problems that may occur in a baby when a mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy.
What are the symptoms of Fetal alcohol syndrome?
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 significant functional problems in three or more major areas: thinking, speech, movement, or social skills (as expected for the baby's age)
- Heart defects such as ventricular septal defect (VSD) or atrial septal defect (ASD)
- Structural problems with the face, including:
- Narrow, small eyes with large epicanthal folds
- Small head
- Small upper jaw
- Smooth groove in upper lip
- Smooth and thin upper lip
What causes Fetal alcohol syndrome?
- Using or abusing alcohol during pregnancy can cause the same risks as using alcohol in general. However, it poses extra risks to the fetus. 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, since no "safe" level of alcohol use during pregnancy has been established. However, larger amounts 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 anytime during pregnancy can be harmful.
When to seek urgent medical care?
- 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.
- A physical exam of the baby may reveal a heart murmur or other heart problems.
- As the baby grows, there may be signs of delayed mental development. There also may be structural problems of the face and skeleton.
- Tests include:
- 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.
Where to find medical care for Fetal alcohol syndrome?
Directions to Hospitals Treating Fetal alcohol syndrome
What to expect (Outlook/Prognosis)?
- The outcome for infants with fetal alcohol syndrome varies depending on the extent of symptoms, but almost none 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 diagnosed early and referred to a team of providers who can work with their families on educational and behavioral strategies that best fit the individual child’s needs.
- Drinking alcohol during pregnancy may result in:
- Miscarriage or stillbirth
- Premature delivery
- Complications seen in the infant may include:
- Abnormal heart structure
- Behavior problems
- Infant death
- Mental retardation
- Problems in the structure of the head, eyes, nose, or mouth
- Poor growth before birth
- Slow growth and poor coordination after birth
- Avoiding alcohol during pregnancy prevents fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Counseling can help prevent recurrence in 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 conceive.
The following organizations may offer assistance:
- National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service -- 1-800-662-4357