According to the American Pregnancy Association, tens of thousands of children are born with one or more types of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) on an annual basis. Of these FASD disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome is both the most severe and the most common. Babies with FASD symptoms can suffer from a variety of physical, social, behavioral, emotional and/or mental disabilities during development and the rest of their lives. There’s no final statistic of how many babies are born each year with FAS. But estimates claim about 1 in 100 children live with some type of the disease, ranging from mild to severe. Treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome can be difficult, depending on the severity of the disease. However, there are ways to educate and find support for this condition.

A large portion of the population of pregnant women in the United States suffers from cases of alcohol abuse and addiction. It’s quite possible that someone who has developed a physical dependence on alcohol can become pregnant. Then, this means the addiction affects both them and their unborn baby. This article will attempt to provide a brief overview of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and the potential treatments that might be available.

What is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)?  ‌

When someone drinks alcohol during pregnancy, the respective fetus enters a high risk of being affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). This type of medical condition can cause a variety of dangerous symptoms for the fetus as it continues to develop and is subsequently born. This can include physical and mental disabilities, amongst other symptoms.

There are three main types of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders:

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)
Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)

shadow of a fetus competing with alcohol in the womb

A fetus can be born with all three of these types of FASD, or only one or two. A proper diagnosis must be made by a medical professional in order to determine the severity of each of the FASD type characteristics. However, there is currently no one test or criteria set in place to be able to diagnose FASDs. Doctors use a variety of testing methods, and many symptoms and defects caused by FASDs can also be caused by other disorders.

When you consume alcohol, it enters your bloodstream. Hence, the legal and medical amount of alcohol in the body is measured by the Blood-Alcohol Content scale. When pregnant, consuming alcohol will typically reach your placenta and cross through its barrier, in turn affecting the fetus in development. Too much alcohol in a pregnant woman’s blood can slow down or halt the intake of the proper amount of oxygen and nutrition a baby needs, which can cause brain damage and affect the overall development of a fetus.

There is no specific safe amount of alcohol consumption that guarantees your baby will or will not develop FASD. However, prior studies have revealed that even one glass of alcohol at any stage of pregnancy can put a fetus at risk. Of course, it’s also understood that the more alcohol that is consumed, the greater the risk. Some doctors say one small glass of red wine shouldn’t cause worry at the later stages of fetal development (as in the last trimester), but everyone’s body is different. Therefore, every growing baby might have different reactions to one or two glasses of alcohol, as well. Better to be safe than sorry, though. The majority of doctors agree: stay away from alcohol while pregnant. 

Signs & Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is considered the most severe type of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder for many reasons. Individuals with fetal alcohol syndrome will often have some types of facial features with disfiguration or deformities, such as underdeveloped eye openings and nose and lip deformities. Children with fetal alcohol syndrome will usually also suffer from issues with growth and issues within their central nervous system. These are similar to the symptoms related to delayed ARND.

Babies with delayed ARND are usually born with a small head and smaller than average brains (also known as microcephaly) which means they tend to suffer from learning disabilities and other intellectual and behavioral disadvantages. This can include but is not limited to:

  • Problems with balance and coordination
  • Delayed milestone developments
  • Poor memory, problem-solving, reasoning, judgment and attention span

newborn baby in the hospital

The physical defects of FAS, and particularly ARBD, can also include underdeveloped joints and limbs. It can result in smaller than average bodies than average children. Full or partial blindness and deafness are also common, as well as organ defects, particularly in hearts, kidneys, and bones.

Lastly, individuals who suffer from FASD will often also suffer from social and behavioral defects. Generally, this means they will find it especially difficult, and sometimes impossible, to function and interact with others as an average person. This often includes difficulties with goal setting, general socializing, likeability, proper learning in school, time management, getting tasks done, distractions and impulse control.

Treatment for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

It’s important to understand that most symptoms of FAS, particularly the physical defects, are typically irreversible. However, while there is no specific cure, there are treatment services and certain medications available that can help a child with FAS manage their individual symptoms and prevent advanced disabilities from developing or worsening.

Treatment is most successful when it started from an early age, particularly when it comes to social and behavioral problems. Early intervention services for these symptoms vary with each affected child, but it can include getting in touch with counselors, therapists, psychologists, and special education teachers to help your child’s social skills and mental health.

Unfortunately, the primary cause of FASD begins with the alcohol consumption habits of the mother. Women are generally more likely to be affected by alcohol addiction and abuse disorders. Many adults turn to substance abuse for personal problems. This can be especially true when used as a coping method for the unique struggles and issues females face in modern-day society, such as depression, family struggles, or the high risk of sexual assault.

woman drinking a fruity alcoholic beverage

In order to best prevent FAS from developing in pregnant women, seeking out recovery for alcohol addiction is essential. This might include an intervention between friends and family, with the goal of encouraging the affected individual to seek help.

Rehab is often the crucial first step towards starting a recovery process for alcohol abuse. Luckily, there are hundreds of premier rehab facilities available across the United States. Many of these have specific support groups tailored towards pregnant women.

Raising Awareness for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Many women aren’t informed on just how much a single glass of alcohol can affect their unborn baby while pregnant. They might think because it’s just one day of drinking, it shouldn’t be an issue for their developing fetus. This can cause a disproportionate amount of FASD to develop in children being born.

It’s vastly important to help raise awareness about these issues. If you know someone who’s pregnant or trying for a baby, pass on the information and resources available. It could potentially help prevent the development of FASD in future children. Specialized help is available for pregnant women with alcohol dependency or addiction. Contact your local doctor or mental health professional if your current pregnancy is at risk due to alcohol abuse.

If you’re a woman who needs help recovering from alcohol use disorder, get help as soon as you can. We at Opus Health have been there. We know how scary it can be to realize the risks in pregnancy when alcohol has a hold on your life. Don’t hesitate to call us and ask for advice. The conversation will be held confidential and we will find you a source of support you need right now.

If you need help recovering from alcoholism or are concerned for a pregnant loved one, call us at Opus Health.