This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Robert Lefever, a world-leading addictions specialist.
Have you ever heard of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)? Do you think your baby might have a similar disorder? Have you been taking alcohol during your pregnancy and are worried that you might have put your child at risk? Are there symptoms you are seeing in your child that make you think you are at risk of the disorder?
Due to how fragile the babies are in the fetus stage, the least amount of alcohol intake can go a long way to affect the baby long-term. Sometimes, the effects of this disorder are not seen immediately after birth, but eventually, it will show as the baby grows. This condition is called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
What Is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)
One of the primary reasons why women are advised not to take alcohol is because of FASDs. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition in a child that results from alcohol exposure during the mother’s pregnancy due to the connection between the mother and baby through the placenta. Since the baby is not fully developed, its system cannot filter the alcohol into its system, unlike the mother.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a collective name for a wide range of illnesses that affect babies due to the intake of alcohol by the mother during pregnancy. Alcohol is a teratogen that makes it unsafe for a pregnant woman to consume during pregnancy. A teratogen is a substance that can cause congenital disabilities or abnormalities in a developing embryo or fetus upon exposure. As a result, women are advised to abstain from alcohol. This is most important, especially when;
- During pregnancy
- Trying to get pregnant
- Suspicion of pregnancy
There is no quantity of alcohol that can be considered safe for a pregnant woman. For this reason, women who are pregnant or attempting to get pregnant are not advised to take alcohol until they are in the clear. In addition, alcohol can lead to miscarriages since the baby’s organs are not developed to handle such substances, among some other myriad of challenges.
Some people might make it through the pregnancy, but the baby will suffer the consequences, which ends in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). The UK has the fourth highest prevalence of drinking whilst pregnant in the world, with some surveys finding that up to 17% of children in the UK at some point in time had Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
General Symptoms Of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)
FASDs have varying symptoms that might cut across the spectrum. The more specific diagnosis may have some of these symptoms being unique to them. Nonetheless, these general symptoms can help you recognise if someone might be having one of these conditions. These symptoms include:
- Distinctive facial features: A noticeable feature is their face. Their head, eyes and upper lip will be smaller with a big gap between their eyes. There will also be a significant bridge between the upper lip and nose. Their facial appearance is very noticeable.
- Mood swings: Children with FASD have terrible mood swings. One minute they are happy; the next minute, they are bursting with anger. Due to their condition, they mostly have lousy communication skills and can get very upset if they cannot get the point across.
- Hyperactivity: Their brain cannot concentrate on one thing or be calm. They are always loud and unattentive. This can make schooling very difficult for them.
- Organ and Bones problem: As stated earlier, the weak organs of the child have to overwork to filter and absorb nutrients to develop. But due to how concentrated the alcohol is, the baby’s organs cannot extract enough nutrients to develop, leaving it with weak and immature organs. This results in little children having kidney failures, brittle bones, and heart failures.
- Low IQ: The brain does not receive enough resources to develop and function properly, similar to the heart and kidney.
Aside from these symptoms, they may also experience hearing and sight impairment, slow growth, have poor social skills and experience anxiety.
How Do FASDs Occur?
The baby in the mother’s womb is connected with her by the placenta. This allows the mum to share food and other necessities with the mother. So basically, the baby eats and benefits from what the mother eats; this means that a mother eating unhealthily will essentially be feeding the baby unhealthily.
If the mother takes in alcohol, it is shared with the baby. This is because the mother, unlike the baby, is a fully developed human, so her organs can filter the alcohol and reduce the damage caused by the alcohol to her body. On the other hand, the baby does not have the same advantage and intensely feels the effects of the alcohol.
If the alcohol intake persists, the toxicity will be too much for the fetus to handle, and its weak organs will not develop properly, leading to FASD.
Types of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder refers to an entire spectrum of conditions. Each of these conditions has its unique symptoms, with some being more severe than others. These conditions are explained below.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
This type of FASD involves damage of the child’s physical appearance (congenital disabilities) and central nervous system (CNS). This type is usually considered the primary type of FASD from which the other types are derived. Children with FAS have distorted facial features, bad sight and hearing, poor memory, and many more. Such children find it difficult fitting in school and society as a whole. There are three main ways to tell if a child suffers from this condition. These are:
- Facial Abnormalities: Children suffering from this condition may have small eyes, a thin upper lip, a smaller head circumference and smooth surface skin between the nose and upper lip. This may be one of the most prominent features that a child has FAS.
- Growth Deficits: Children with FAS could end up being smaller than other children. They tend to have a weight and height that is lesser than other children their age.
- CNS Abnormalities: They also have severe neurological problems. They tend to have structural and functional abnormalities in both the brain and spine.
Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (PFAS)
The Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (PFAS) typically refers to a less severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) version. As the name implies, it is a partial version of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which means that anyone diagnosed with this usually meets only a portion of the criteria required for diagnosing the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). In addition, it typically features the most but not all growth deficits, which are available with the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which serves as a distinct feature between both conditions.
Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)
Unlike the previous condition (FAS), this condition is not evident since the defects occur neurologically and not physically. You won’t be able to tell at a glance that the child has an FASD. However, it will become more apparent once their behaviour and cognition are observed.
Children with this condition in the spectrum will suffer from Intellectual Disability and have challenges with Adaptive Behaviour. In addition, intellectual functioning such as learning, communication and problem will be significantly impaired.
Children with these kinds of disabilities may need special support from their schools if the situation is acute and more specialised institutions if the condition is chronic. As infants, they typically crawl, walk and speak later than children their age.
Adaptive behaviour is seen in their activities, such as how they act during bathing and feeding compared to children of their age. The IQ and adaptive behaviour of the child are used together to determine if the child suffers from Intelectual Disability. Individuals with an IQ range of 70 to 55 or lower are considered as having Intellectual Disability.
Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)
This condition comes with a lot more physical defects. A child with this condition has complications in developing the heart, brain, kidney and bones. Not only do these organs unable to create well, but they also do not function properly. In addition, if the child has this condition, they may have one of the other conditions mentioned earlier.
Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE)
This is a more recent diagnosis associated with FASDs. People with this type of FASD have problems with thinking and remembering things. They also have destructive behavioural issues such as mood swings and throwing tantrums. Lastly, they have issues with their basic life skills, such as bathing, eating, or dressing on their own.
Secondary Disabilities due to FASDs
Although the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders result from exposure to alcohol during the fetal stage in their mother’s womb, there is the chance of anyone with this condition developing secondary disability. These occur when individuals with FASDs are not well taken care of. The secondary disabilities/needs they could develop include:
- Poor Mental health with issues such as ADHD and clinical depression.
- Constant rebellion against the law.
- Inappropriate sexual behaviours.
- Alcohol and drug abuse.
- Dependent living
These and many more result from neglect, instability, and a lack of good support systems for people with FASD. Research done by the University of Washington on 473 subjects diagnosed with FASD has shown that the Majority of the percentage go through these problems and sadly from the ages twelve upwards.
Way to reduce the rate of secondary disabilities caused by FASD
Individuals with FASD can grow and develop well if the right conditions are put in place for that. Some of the ways to help such individuals are;
- Having a stable, good, and quality home.
- They are not exposing or subjecting them to violence.
- They are having their basic needs met.
- Engaging them in recreational activities that appeal to their abilities.
How Do Doctors Check For FASD In People?
Diagnosing someone with FASD can be tricky because there is no medical test involved in examining the child, and some of its symptoms resemble other diseases, but there are a few things they do check for. Some of them are:
- Prenatal alcohol exposure: The doctors will ask if the mother took in any alcohol during pregnancy.
- Central nervous system problems: They examine the child for his head size, attention span, cognitive abilities, etc.
- Height and weight: If the child’s size and weight are below average, there might be a possibility.
- Abnormal facial features: Usually, children with FASD have distinct facial characteristics such as a smooth ridge between the nose and upper lip, a small upper lip, etc.
These and other questions are expected to be asked by the doctor, and if the child is suspected of having FASD, you will be referred to a specialist for help.
Treatment of FASDs
Although FASD cannot be cured, it can be treated and managed in several ways. Below are some of the ways that FASDs can be treated.
- Medications: The use of psychoactive drugs to change a person’s moods, cognition, and behaviour.
- Behaviour and education therapy: Due to their lack of social skills, they need special care and attention to help them improve those skills through this therapy.
- Parent training: Children with FASD need special care and attention. Their caretakers, parents, or guardians must be trained on how to take care of them.
- Good Medical care: Like every human being, people with FASD need vaccinations, check-ups, and other medical care to stay healthy.
The above mentioned are not the only treatments for people with FASD. There are other alternatives such as yoga and exercises, animal-assisted therapy, massages, and many more.
Frequently Asked Questions
I have been taking alcohol during my pregnancy; Is my child at risk?
Please call 0203 955 7700, and an experienced advisor is available to speak to and provide help.
What should I do if I can’t stop drinking but still want a baby?
Can FASD be Cured?
I am tired of my child with FASD. What can I do?
- Basics about FASDs
- Teratogen: What Is It, Examples, and More
- Characterising Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder: Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and the Spectrum of Outcomes
- National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – Living with FASD
- Up to 17% of children in the UK could have symptoms of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, according to the latest estimates
- Estimation of national, regional, and global prevalence of alcohol use during pregnancy and fetal alcohol syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis
Meta – Description
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a collective name for a wide range of illnesses that affect babies due to the intake of alcohol by the mother during pregnancy. Unfortunately, FASD can not be cured, and its effects are irreversible. That’s why pregnant women are always advised not to consume alcohol during pregnancy.