Understanding Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

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The impact of alcohol abuse and addiction is rarely limited to the individual who has the drinking problem. This is especially true of people who continue to drink while they are pregnant. Prenatal exposure to alcohol can cause children to be born with several irreversible health conditions, including fetal alcohol syndrome.

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is one of five conditions that fall under the umbrella of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). The other four FASD disorders are:

  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS)
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND)
  • Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD)
  • Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE)

As a group, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can involve a variety of physical, psychological, and cognitive impairments that result from exposure to alcohol in utero. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe of the five conditions in this group.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported the following statistics about the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome:

  • A CDC analysis of “medical and other records” determined that about one of every 3,000 children aged 7-9 in the United States may have fetal alcohol syndrome. 
  • Studies that were based on in-person assessments have concluded that nine of every 1,000 school-aged children in the U.S. may have FAS.  
  • Research into all five conditions suggests that FADS may impact as many as five of every 100 school-aged children in the U.S. (or up to 5% of that demographic group).

The CDC also estimates that it costs about $2 million to provide lifetime care for a person with fetal alcohol syndrome.


An October 2021 study in the journal Nutrients reported that people who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome and other FADS have an increased risk of myriad physical, mental, behavioral, and social challenges throughout their lifetime, including:

  • Conduct disorder
  • Language disorders
  • Impaired functioning of the peripheral nervous system
  • Visual impairments
  • Hearing loss
  • Heat defects
  • Cognitive deficiencies
  • Delayed acquisition of motor skills
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Low academic achievement
  • Frequent contact with law enforcement
  • Substance abuse
  • Unemployment
  • Inability to live independently

The Nutrients study also reported that the risk of premature death is five times higher for people who have any fetal alcohol spectrum disorder than among the general public.

What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome has only one cause: being exposed to alcohol prior to being born. 

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has reported that pregnant people who engage in binge drinking or other types of heavy alcohol consumption have the greatest risk of giving birth to a child with FAS. However, the organization emphasizes that any amount of alcohol use at any time during pregnancy can be problematic.

According to the Mayo Clinic, here’s how the damage can occur:

  • When a pregnant person consumes alcohol, the drug reaches the embryo or the fetus by passing from the parent’s bloodstream through the placenta and accumulating in the amniotic fluid. 
  • Since the fetus cannot metabolize alcohol at the same rate that a fully formed adult can, their blood alcohol content (BAC) can become much higher than the pregnant person’s.
  • The presence of alcohol can prevent an adequate supply of oxygen from reaching the fetus. Alcohol can also interfere with the flow of nutrients from the pregnant person’s body to the fetus. This can disrupt tissue growth and have a detrimental impact on many other aspects of healthy fetal development.

What Does Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Look Like?

Fetal alcohol syndrome does not affect every person in an identical manner. However, there are certain features that are common among many who have this condition. These include:

  • Smaller than average head circumference
  • Small eyes, thin upper lip, and upturned nose
  • Low body weight and shorter than average height
  • Problems with balance and coordination
  • Poor problem-solving skills
  • Difficulty focusing, concentrating, and paying attention
  • Restlessness and impulsivity
  • Substandard social skills
  • Mood swings and emotional outbursts
  • Difficulty performing basic activities of daily living

How to Prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

There is one simple way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome: Remaining abstinent from alcohol for the duration of one’s pregnancy. If a person doesn’t consume any alcohol while they are pregnant, their child will have no risk of being born with fetal alcohol syndrome. 

Unfortunately, while this preventative measure is simple, it isn’t always easy. Here are two reasons why:

  • According to the American Pregnancy Association, most people discover that they are pregnant somewhere between the fourth and seventh weeks after conception. This means that for a month or longer, a pregnant person could be unknowingly exposing their developing fetus to alcohol.
  • If a person has become addicted to alcohol, their compulsions (and the distress of withdrawal) may make it impossible for them to quit drinking on their own. For people in this situation, professional alcohol addiction treatment may be essential for their own health as well as for the continued healthy development of their fetus. 

Contact Our Alcohol Abuse Treatment Center Today

If you have become trapped in the downward spiral of compulsive alcohol abuse, please know that help is available and treatment works. When you find the right type and level of care, you can quit drinking for good and build a foundation for lifelong recovery.

Renewal Health Group offers a full continuum of care – including detox, residential rehab, and multiple outpatient options – at several locations in southern California. In each of our addiction treatment facilities and at every level of care, you can expect to receive close personal attention and comprehensive support from a team of experienced professionals. 

Don’t let addiction rob you of the healthy future you deserve. To learn more about how we can help you, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Contact page or call us today. 

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