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Understanding the Basics: Fast Facts About Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Understanding the Basics: Fast Facts About Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

If your child has been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), or you’ve newly met someone with this intellectual and developmental disability (IDD)—whether a family member, a friend or part of a friend’s family, a co-worker, a neighbor, or someone else—you certainly wouldn’t be alone in realizing you don’t know much about it. So, here’s some introductory information and facts about fetal alcohol syndrome to help you better understand it.

Basic Facts About Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome results from exposure to alcohol during gestation. This exposure during the pregnancy inhibits proper development of the child’s brain, potentially causing a number of intellectual and developmental problems of varying severity.
  • When a pregnant woman drinks, the alcohol enters her bloodstream and crosses the placenta to reach the fetus. A fetus metabolizes alcohol at a much slower rate than an adult, so they easily hit extremely high blood alcohol levels. This impairs oxygenation and nutrient delivery.
  • There’s no amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy that is considered safe. It is strongly recommended that pregnant women refrain completely from drinking alcohol. Any amount of drinking creates the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • Alcohol use during pregnancy is the leading cause of preventable birth defects and intellectual disabilities in the United States.
  • A doctor can’t diagnose FAS before birth. However, there are many ways of assessing the health of the mother and the developing child.
  • There’s no definitive diagnostic test for fetal alcohol syndrome. It’s diagnosed by considering the mother’s drinking habits during pregnancy, the observable symptoms, and exclusion of other conditions that may explain those symptoms.
  • FAS can cause impaired physical development that commonly manifests in a number of ways, such as small eyes; an extremely thin upper lip; a short, upturned nose; smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip; deformed joints, limbs, or digits; stunted growth before and after birth; impaired vision or hearing; small head circumference and brain size; heart defects; kidney problems; and bone problems.
  • It can also cause central nervous system problems such as impaired coordination, poor balance, seizures, learning disorders and other intellectual disabilities, low IQ, speech and language delays, impaired memory, poor attention span and difficulty focusing, trouble processing information, poor reasoning or problem-solving skills, trouble connecting choices with consequences, poor judgment, hyperactivity, and mood swings.
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome also often causes social and behavioral issues such as trouble sitting still or behaving well, difficulty getting along with others, poor social skills, trouble staying on task or switching between tasks, difficulty adapting to change, poor impulse control, aggression, a weak concept of time, and difficulty planning or working toward goals.
  • There is no way to reverse damage caused by FAS, nor is there a cure. However, early intervention (including medication, physical therapy, behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, and other treatments) can help improve certain areas of a child’s development.
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome is actually just one of a number of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Other FASDs include alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, alcohol-related birth defects, partial fetal alcohol syndrome, and neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure.

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