Fetal alcohol syndrome

What is fetal alcohol syndrome?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a group of potentially disabling congenital conditions that occur due to alcohol consumption by the mother during pregnancy, with fetal alcohol syndrome or FAS being the most severe among them. No safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy has been determined. It is therefore advisable to avoid drinking alcohol altogether during pregnancy to eliminate any risk.

FAS mainly affects the facial features, bones, heart and central nervous system. Thus, it is believed that drinking during the first trimester may affect the fetus the most as these organs and body parts develop in the initial three months. But, drinking alcohol during any trimester is harmful to the baby.

How does alcohol affect the fetus?

When you drink alcohol during pregnancy, it reaches the developing fetus, crossing the placenta through your bloodstream. The fetus cannot metabolize the alcohol as fast as you can. As a result, the blood alcohol concentration in the baby becomes higher than that in your body, causing developmental problems. Alcohol also prevents sufficient oxygen and necessary nutrients from reaching the baby’s developing organs and tissues, such as heart and brain.

What are the signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome?

Facial Features

  • Narrow eye opening
  • Wide-set eyes
  • Small upper jaw
  • Lazy eye
  • Thin and smooth upper lip
  • Absence of groove between the nose and upper lip
  • Flat cheeks
  • Short, upturned nose
  • Small teeth

Other Physical Characteristics

  • Small head
  • Excessive hair growth
  • Unusual ‘railroad track’ shaped ears
  • Under-grown nails
  • Decreased muscle tone
  • Underdeveloped genitalia
  • Limbs, joints and finger deformities
  • Low birth weight
  • Below average height
  • Small toenails and fingernails
  • Abnormal hand and foot creases
  • Caved-in chest wall
  • Limited range of movement of fingers and elbows

Mental, Behavioural and Internal Effects

  • Small, underdeveloped brain
  • Heart defects, heart murmur and large vessel abnormalities
  • Diaphragmatic or umbilical hernia
  • Kidney defects
  • Learning disorders, short attention span and poor memory
  • Articulation problems due to poor tongue control
  • Poor hand-eye coordination
  • Mental retardation
  • Poor impulse control
  • Extreme anxiety and nervousness
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Increased risks of epilepsy
  • Other organ dysfunction

Despite being an incurable disorder, the quality of life of the patients may be improved. Providing the child with proper occupational therapy, speech therapy and special education will help him/her to cope with the birth defects and function within the limitations of the condition.


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