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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)

Condition Basics

What is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) describes the range of alcohol effects on a fetus. Alcohol can pass from your blood into your fetus's blood. It can damage and affect the growth of the fetal cells. Brain and spinal cord cells are most likely to have damage. The problems can range from mild to severe.

How does FASD affect a fetus?

Drinking alcohol during your pregnancy can cause problems for the developing fetus. It can affect how their heart, lungs, and brain work. Alcohol use also raises the risk of problems like pregnancy loss (miscarriage) and early (preterm) labor.

FASD can cause a child to have physical or mental problems that may last all of their life. The effects of alcohol can include:

  • Certain facial features. A child may have a small head, a flat face, and narrow eye openings.
  • Growth problems. Children who were exposed to alcohol before they were born may be smaller than other children of the same age.
  • Birth defects.
  • Emotional, learning, and behavior problems.
  • Problems bonding or feeding as a newborn.

How can you prevent FASD?

You can prevent FASD by not drinking alcohol at all during pregnancy. That is what many doctors suggest. If you use alcohol and need help quitting or cutting back, talk to your doctor or counselor.

The effects that alcohol has on a fetus depends on how much, how often, and at what stage of pregnancy alcohol was used. The most severe effects often are related to heavy alcohol use. But any amount of alcohol may affect the fetus.

What can you do if you're pregnant and have had alcohol?

Try to talk openly with your doctor if you've had alcohol while you're pregnant.

While you're pregnant and when you give birth, your doctor can watch for problems related to alcohol use. And the doctor will know to do more tests, if needed, as your child grows.

It's safest not to use alcohol at all during pregnancy. If you need help to quit or cut back, you can work with your doctor or counselor to find a treatment that works for you.

When is FASD diagnosed?

Signs of FASD don't always appear at birth. A doctor may be able to spot severe alcohol effects (fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS) in the infant at birth. Other effects, such as behavior or learning problems, may not be noticed until the child is in school.

Sometimes the doctor can find severe problems during the pregnancy. The doctor can use a test (ultrasound) to look for signs of FAS in a fetus, such as heart defects or growth delays. What may have caused those problems may not be clear. But the findings alert the doctor to any special care a child may need after birth.

What is the treatment for FASD?

There is no cure for FASD. But early treatment may help reduce some problems from the condition.

An infant born with FASD may be treated for problems from low birth weight. Some newborns may have special care, such as being in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Treatment for older children may include extra support in school. It may also include therapy, such as speech therapy or behavior therapy. Medicines can be used to help treat a mental health condition or behavioral problem linked to FASD. Parents can choose to take classes to learn more about how they can help their child.


Current as of: October 24, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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