Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: the Facts

pregnant and alcoholFetal alcohol syndrome is a birth defect that is 100% preventable but 100% incurable. If your child is born with FAS, they will have the defect for life. There is a spectrum of alcohol disorders – some children will have facial and physical abnormalities as well as abnormalities of the nervous system, but some children will have no noticeable abnormality on the outside whilst they do have abnormalities of the nervous system and the brain. Other alcohol spectrum disorders include alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD).

Children who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome are likely to develop a range of secondary disorders as a result of having FAS. According to the National Centre on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, children born with fetal alcohol syndrome are at an increased risk of developing some of the following disorders:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Conduct disorders
  • Alcohol and drug dependence
  • Psychiatric illness, such as schizophrenia
  • Depression or depressive episodes
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Psychological dysfunction
  • Cognitive disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Anxiety disorder

These disorders can cause a whole host of other problems – for example, because children with FAS have difficulty in getting along with other people and listening to people in a position of authority, they can have problems with their education in that it can be disrupted, meaning that they don’t have the best education that they can receive. They are also more likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Unfortunately, statistics on fetal alcohol syndrome state that children with FAS are more likely to have contact with the police and the juridical system than those who do not. This is thought to be because they tend to have more anger and behavioral problems and less tolerance of other people, meaning that they are more likely to lash out at other people and at those in authority.

A number of visible signs of fetal alcohol syndrome can often be seen, including a number of facial abnormalities and growth deficiencies, including:

  • Low or malformed ears
  • A small upper jaw
  • Thin upper lip
  • Opening in the roof of the mouth
  • Flat or absent groove between the nose and the upper lip
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Small head
  • Small eye openings
  • Webbing between the eyes and the base of the nose
  • Failure of the eyes to move in the same direction
  • Short, upturned nose
  • Flattened cheekbones
  • Sunken nasal bridge
  • Small body size and weight
  • Slow physical development in comparison to peers
  • Will not ‘catch up’ with peers
  • Deformed ribs and sternum
  • Curved spine
  • Caved in chest wall
  • Bent, fused, webbed or missing fingers and toes
  • Extra fingers
  • Hip dislocations
  • Small skull
  • Excess hair

Surely knowing that there is a disorder that causes this many developmental problems is enough to prevent many mothers-to-be from drinking excessively. Unfortunately, that is not the case – a recent study showed that 15% of women still drank to excess despite knowing the risks as ‘it might not happen to them’  and ‘it doesn’t happen to every child of a drinker’. Fetal alcohol syndrome is more common amongst teen mothers, as there seems to be an unfortunate mentality of ‘I’m not going to change my habits just because I’m pregnant, I still need a life’.

So how much alcohol can you drink? Severe FAS tends to be caused by mothers drinking over eight drinks a day. Some symptoms of FAS can be caused by four to six drinks per day and two drinks per day seems to not cause any symptoms other than low birth weight. There is no concrete evidence to show that less than two drinks per day is harmful to the baby. However, the approach you decide to take to your drinking is entirely up to you – whether you employ the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach or whether you employ the ‘I’ll have a drink occasionally’ policy. Speak to your doctor for more information on FAS.