Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Women who drink alcohol during their pregnancy are putting their baby at risk for developing fetal alcohol syndrome. There is no proven amount of alcohol that is considered to be safe to drink while pregnant. While some studies claim moderate drinking is safe for expectant mothers, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Therefore, expectant mothers should avoid alcohol consumption altogether to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome from occurring.

Definition

During pregnancy, when a woman drinks alcoholic beverages, the alcohol gets into her bloodstream and crosses into the placenta. Fetal alcohol syndrome is a blanket term used to define the problems and conditions that develop in babies as a result of being exposed to alcohol while in the womb.

Symptoms

Mental retardation is a common symptom of fetal alcohol syndrome. The extent of retardation and severity of symptoms varies among children, and ranges from mild to severe. Some common symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome in babies and children include:

  • Small eyes
  • Thin upper lip
  • Short nose that is upturned
  • Smooth skin between the nose and upper lips
  • Slow physical growth in the womb
  • Slow physical growth after birth
  • Vision problems
  • Hearing problems
  • Small head circumference
  • Microcephaly (small brain)
  • Poor coordination
  • Delayed development
  • Learning disorders
  • Short attention span
  • Hyperactivity
  • Poor impulse control
  • Anxiety
  • Heart defects

Causes

Any substance that crosses the placenta gets into the baby’s bloodstream; this includes alcohol. A fetus is not able to metabolize alcohol at the same rate as an adult, which causes the concentration of alcohol in the baby’s blood to be significantly higher than the levels in the mother’s blood. Oxygen is not effectively delivered to the baby’s developing organs and tissues when alcohol is in the bloodstream.

Risk Factors

Doctors do not know how much alcohol an expectant mother would have to consume to put her baby at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome. What they do know is that the more alcohol a woman drinks during her pregnancy, the greater the risk to her unborn baby. The risk of developing fetal alcohol syndrome exists throughout the entire pregnancy.

However, drinking alcohol during the first trimester carries the highest risk of a baby developing impaired facial features, heart and organ disorders and problems with the central nervous system. Many women do not find out that they are pregnant until they are halfway through their first trimester. For this reason, it is important to avoid alcohol consumption if you are trying to conceive or if there is any possibility that you may be pregnant.

Diagnostic Tests

There are no diagnostic tests for detecting fetal alcohol syndrome before birth. During pregnancy, doctors can evaluate the condition of both the expectant mother and the baby’s health. Women should inform their doctor of the amount of alcohol consumed, if any, and what stage of the pregnancy consumption occurred. This will allow the doctor to determine the level of risk involved for the baby. This also gives your doctor the opportunity to monitor the baby after birth and watch for the development of any symptoms associated with fetal alcohol syndrome.

In addition to monitoring your baby’s overall health, a doctor will also keep a close eye on other factors, such as your baby’s:

  • Growth
  • Facial features
  • Heart
  • Hearing
  • Vision
  • Cognitive skills
  • Language development
  • Speech
  • Motor skills
  • Behavior

Treatment Options

There is no treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome. It is an incurable condition with physical defects and mental symptoms that will last throughout the baby’s lifetime. Psychological, emotional, social, behavioral and learning problems can often be treated with therapy and counseling.

Prevention

The best way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is to avoid alcoholic beverages completely. Women who are actively trying to conceive should refrain from drinking alcohol and should continue to stay sober throughout the entire pregnancy. Because many pregnancies are not planned, some women choose to give up drinking alcoholic beverages completely during their childbearing years. This eliminates the possibility of exposing the fetus to alcohol during the very early weeks of pregnancy, before the pregnancy is even detected.

Considerations

It can be difficult for parents to manage the psychological and emotional effects of giving birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. Many mothers experience guilt and depression after learning that they have given birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome because, unlike other birth defects, fetal alcohol syndrome is a direct result of the mother’s actions during pregnancy and are 100 percent preventable.

It is important for mothers to learn how to cope with these feelings so that they can focus their energy on helping their child. Seeking out support groups or counseling can be very beneficial to the child, parents and family members involved with the child that has fetal alcohol syndrome. Substance abuse programs and counseling may be needed to help parents overcome their alcohol addiction.

While studies that suggest light to moderate alcohol consumption can be safe for expectant mothers are beginning to surface, a full-proof way to eliminate the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome is to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy. If you have any further questions about fetal alcohol syndrome, or consuming alcohol during pregnancy, you should consult your doctor. To learn more about these studies, see Drinking During Pregnancy: Safe Or Unsafe?

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