Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Pregnant woman with glass of wine

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome refers to the physical and mental defects that develop in some babies when the mother drinks alcohol during her pregnancy. The mother's use of alcohol can handicap the child for life.

Physical Effects

As a pregnant woman drinks, alcohol in her bloodstream crosses the placental barrier and enters the baby's bloodstreams. It can interfere with normal cell development in the fetus's brain and body organs.

Physical effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) are lifelong impairments. This condition is found in every race and socio-economic group. Different children are affected to different degrees. Here are some of the characteristics of children with FAS:

  • Growth retardation: The baby may be abnormally small and may not "catch up" to normal size after birth.
  • Facial deformities: These may include small eye openings, skin folds at the corners of the eyes, a short nose with a low-set and flattened bridge, a thin upper lip, low-set ears, and a small face. Children with FAS may be missing the philtrum, the indentation that goes from the nose to the middle of the upper lip.
  • Central nervous system problems: These can include mental retardation, an abnormally small brain and head, attention deficit disorder, and hyperactivity. Babies with FAS may be irritable.

Other Effects of Alcohol

Children of mothers who drank during pregnancy can have other birth defects as well. These include:

  • Heart defects
  • Improperly formed fingers and nails
  • Scoliosis (curved spine)
  • Deformed ribs and sternum
  • Joint contractures (problems with joint movement)
  • Kidney problems
  • Vision problems
  • Hearing loss
  • Malformations in the reproductive tract and/or genitals


The Center for Disease Control estimates that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome affects anywhere from .2 to 1.5 in 1,000 babies born in the U.S. each year. There may be as many as 12,000 babies born with FAS every year. Up to three times as many babies have alcohol-related problems that aren't strictly diagnosed as FAS.

On average, lifetime care costs for a person with FAS add up to around $2 million, according to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And nationwide, in the U.S., the cost of alcohol-related birth defects is about $4 billion.


Some studies indicate that binge drinking (drinking large amounts of alcohol at one time) poses more danger to the fetus than drinking small amounts more frequently. But even small amounts of alcohol can be harmful to the unborn baby. Doctors aren't sure if there is any safe amount.

The safest choice is for a woman to abstain from alcohol as soon as she decides to become pregnant. Waiting to confirm a pregnancy before abstaining can put the baby at risk, because crucial brain development happens early on. If a pregnancy is unexpected, abstaining from alcohol immediately on learning of the pregnancy can lessen the risk of FAS and other alcohol-related problems.


Discuss questions regarding alcohol use before pregnancy with your physician. Your doctor is also the best resource if you have additional questions regarding alcohol usage during pregnancy, or if you believe your baby may display some of the characteristics of FAS.

While there is no cure for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, early intervention and diagnosis can lessen the effects. Here are some things that can help:

  • Early diagnosis, so that the child can receive help as soon as possible.
  • Special education and tutoring to help with learning disabilities.
  • Counseling, for parents as well as the child, to help with behavior problems.

Special educational and needs classes may be offered by county or private health insurance organizations. Parents can add to their children's success by providing a stable home life, avoiding disruptive or transient lifestyles, and ending harmful relationships. Children who live in abusive or unstable home environments may be more likely to develop secondary problems, such as failing in school or getting involved in criminal activity.


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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome