Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Other Reasons to Begin Recovery

Drinking alcohol at any time during a pregnancy is dangerous for the baby. Read on to learn about fetal alcohol syndrome.   

Table of Contents

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition caused by a mother’s use of alcohol during pregnancy. When ingested, alcohol passes into a fetus from a mother’s blood through the umbilical cord. Due to alcohol’s effects on the fetus, the child may suffer from birth defects. A few of these defects might include intellectual impairments, a small head circumference, heart problems, or speech delays. Other defects include easily identifiable fetal alcohol syndrome face ​​abnormalities.  

Statistics on Drinking During Pregnancy

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that about one in every nine women has consumed alcohol within the past thirty days of pregnancy. About one-third of the pregnant women who reported drinking also say that they engaged in binge drinking at least four times in the past thirty days.1 Moreover, drinking during pregnancy is a growing trend, according to the CDC, with 9.2% (2012) of pregnant women consuming alcohol growing to 11.3% (2018).2

What’s more problematic for women of childbearing age who drink alcohol, is that they may be unaware that they are pregnant. The first trimester of a woman’s pregnancy is the most critical time for fetal development. It is at this time that a woman may drink alcohol without knowing that they’re carrying a baby. 

Signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The signs of FAS may differ from child to child, but the most common include:

  • Smaller than normal head size
  • Low body weight
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactivity
  • Short stature
  • Delayed speech and language
  • Poor coordination
  • Sleep challenges as an infant
  • Difficulty feeding as an infant
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome face ​​(facial abnormalities) 

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders (FASDs)

Specifically, FAS is part of a group of conditions called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which all occur due to the maternal consumption of alcohol. With five disorders listed as part of the FASD spectrum, FAS is the most severe.3

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders include:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Alcohol-related birth defects
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder
  • A neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure 

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome 

Fetal alcohol syndrome ​​​ is the most severe and widely known of the FASDs. Children with fetal alcohol syndrome have a variety of both physical and mental conditions. Alcohol markers, like fetal alcohol syndrome face, include ​​abnormal facial features such as a thin upper lip and wide-set eyes. FAS also affects a child’s central nervous system, resulting in neurobehavioral issues, like hyperactivity. In some cases, fetal alcohol syndrome ​​​ can even result in fetal death.

Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)

Children who have partial fetal alcohol syndrome only have two physical aspects of fetal alcohol syndrome ​​​. However, they also have central nervous system issues and slow development, resulting in behavior and cognitive problems.

Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)

Birth defects related to alcohol exposure can include one or a combination of heart, kidney, bone, or auditory abnormalities. 

Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder

Children with ARND have problems with memory, attention, and exhibit poor scholastic performance once they are in school. These children may also show reduced impulse control and problem-solving skills, leading to behavioral issues. 

Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE)

Children who have ND-PAE are typically impaired in three major areas: self-regulation, neurocognition, and adaptive functioning. As a child matures, these impairments show themselves in different ways but can have an overall negative effect on a child’s scholastic performance and behavior.

Risks of Drinking When Pregnant

Drinking alcohol when pregnant comes with significant risks for the baby, even when only small quantities of alcohol are consumed. Pregnant women and women looking to become pregnant should abstain from any alcohol because of its effects on a fetus, like birth defects. 

Birth Defects

A birth defect is a problem with how a baby looks or functions. Birth defects form while the child is a fetus growing in its mother’s body. One out of every thirty-three babies is born with a birth defect in the U.S., with most of those defects occurring in the first three months of pregnancy.6 The consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is the most common cause of birth defects in the U.S.7

Birth defects may range from minor to severe, with a few resulting in death. Some physical birth defects are immediately noticeable, like a fetal alcohol syndrome face ​​abnormality or a neural tube defect. Other children with alcohol fetal syndrome ​​​require diagnostic equipment and testing, like heart defects. How a birth defect impacts a child’s life depends on what organ is affected and the severity of the defect. 

Toxins from Alcohol

Because alcohol is so commonplace in society, it’s easy to forget that alcohol produces toxins as it metabolizes in the body. As the body breaks alcohol down, alcohol produces toxic byproducts like acetaldehyde, which breaks down into other toxins like acetate. In small and infrequent amounts, the body can rid itself of most toxins from alcohol through metabolism and waste removal. In large or frequent amounts, however, the toxins from alcohol can build up and destroy organs like the liver, kidneys, and brain.

Unfortunately, a fetus cannot efficiently filter out the toxins in alcohol. As a result, alcohol that passes from the mom into the fetus through the umbilical cord remains in the baby’s body. Alcohol levels in the fetus can remain elevated and linger, resulting in a FAS baby with physical or behavioral problems.

Damaged Cells

As the fetus develops, the alcohol can damage growing cells and cause a variety of physical and mental problems for the FAS baby. Therefore, there is no safe amount of alcohol for a pregnant woman to drink, especially in the first three months of pregnancy.9

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can:

  • Reduce the number of nutrients a fetus receives.
  • Result in low birth weight
  • Cause premature birth
  • Cause a miscarriage (fetus dies before the 20th week of pregnancy)
  • Birth defects (hearing issues or heart defects)
  • Result in fetal alcohol syndrome and other ​​​fetal alcohol spectrum disorders
  • Cause fetal alcohol syndrome face abnormalities​​ 

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder risks for children

fetal alcohol syndrome

Heart Issues

The ramifications of drinking alcohol during pregnancy can carry on throughout the life of a child. For example, alcohol markers such as congenital heart defects, like a ventricular septal defect (VSD) or an atrial septal defect (ASD), results in a hole in the heart. Unfortunately, congenital heart defects are challenging to spot.10

Children may grow into adulthood not knowing they have a heart problem. As adults, they may discover their heart defects when they start to show signs and symptoms, like shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Kidney problems and bone-related issues can also cause a lifetime of medical hardships for a child, requiring surgery or medications. 

Brain Issues

The most significant risks, however, result from alcohol’s impact on a fetus’ developing brain. Brain imaging studies show alcohol markers children with alcohol fetal syndrome ​​​ have, on average, smaller brains and poor communication between areas of the brain.11 Fetal alcohol exposure also causes defects in the following brain areas:

  • The frontal lobe
  • The cerebellum
  • The corpus callosum
  • The hippocampus
  • The basal ganglia

Because alcohol can affect so many areas of the brain, a child with fetal alcohol syndrome may have a variety of impairments. These deficiencies may include the ability to make decisions, organize and plan, and process or remember information. These fetal alcohol syndrome impairments can also impact motor control, making it challenging for a child to write, throw a ball, and other tasks requiring coordination and fine movements.

A fetal alcohol syndrome baby may show behavior problems as they grow older. These issues may manifest themselves as hyperactivity, poor impulse control, and mood swings. These behavior and cognitive challenges can impede a child’s success in school and, in some cases, throughout their adult life. 

Treatment for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Unfortunately, no treatment can reverse the effects of alcohol on a fetus. The best a parent can hope for is the appropriate management of FASD symptoms. To mitigate the effects of FASDs, it is best to find early intervention such as:

  • Medications to alleviate some symptoms.
  • Surgery to treat physical defects, if possible.
  • Behavior therapy for the child.
  • Education therapy to assist with performance in school.
  • Parental training.

There are a few “protective factors” that can prevent FASDs from significantly impacting a child’s life. Typically, children benefit from the early identification of an FASD, preferably before the age of six. In addition, children with FASD who grow up in loving, stable, and nurturing homes free from violence are less affected by their symptoms. 

Seeking Rehabilitation for Alcohol Addiction

There is no safe level for alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or intend to become pregnant should avoid drinking. Because a fetus cannot metabolize alcohol, it’s essential for women who binge drink or drink alcohol frequently to seek help to stop drinking.

There is never a better time for a woman to quit drinking alcohol than when she is pregnant. Even if a woman has already consumed alcohol during pregnancy, she can still stop drinking. It’s never too late to stop.

Most times it takes about four to six weeks before a woman knows she is pregnant, and her developing fetus could be unknowingly exposed to alcohol, resulting in FAS. Fetal development, especially brain growth, occurs throughout pregnancy. It is better to stop at any time during pregnancy than not stop at all. What’s more, alcohol can also show up in breastmilk, so a mother needs to remain alcohol-free while breastfeeding.

A variety of 12-Step programs exist that can help potential mothers and pregnant women to stop drinking. These programs can offer a safe, supportive space to begin managing alcohol consumption. 


If you or a loved one needs help, please call us at
623-523-4748 and our team at Blueprints For Recovery in Arizona will help.

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