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What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition that results from alcohol exposure to a fetus during the mother’s pregnancy. It is the most severe form of a range of disorders known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). The severity of symptoms range from mild to severe and include mental and physical defects that vary from one person to another. The damage from FASD is often permanent but early diagnosis may help reduce certain problems such as developmental or behavioral issues. There is no safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy and the only way to completely prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is through abstinence.


Fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as other FASD, are caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. If a woman who is pregnant drinks, some of the alcohol can potentially pass across the placenta to the fetus. Alcohol that reaches the fetus can result in a lack of nutrition and oxygen from reaching vital organs. Exposure to alcohol before birth harms the development of tissues and organs, including the brain.

Alcohol-related damage can be caused as soon as the first few weeks even when a woman might not yet know she’s pregnant. To avoid the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome, women who are trying to get pregnant should avoid any alcohol consumption.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

Fetal alcohol syndrome covers a wide range of problems and different FASD diagnoses are based on particular symptoms. Each disorder in the spectrum involves at least a few of the following:

Physical Effects

  • Small head size
  • Small and wide-set eyes
  • A smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose
  • A short, upturned nose
  • Deformities of joints, limbs, and fingers
  • Low body weight
  • Slow physical growth before and after birth
  • Vision and hearing issues
  • Issues sleeping and latching as a baby
  • Heart defects and problems with kidneys and bones

Mental and Behavioral Effects

  • Hyperactivity
  • Poor social skills
  • Learning disabilities
  • Lack of focus
  • Mood swings
  • Poor judgement
  • Speech delays
  • Memory issues
  • Poor coordination or balance

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

FAS is the most well-known, and most severe of the alcohol spectrum disorders. Compared to other diagnoses, FAS displays more symptoms, such as the following:

  • Smooth philtrum (groove on the upper lip)
  • Thin vermillion border (border between the lips and surrounding the skin)
  • General growth deficits
  • Small palpebral fissures (distance between the corners of each eye)
  • Central Nervous System (CNS) abnormalities

People with FAS can have a mix of cognitive and behavioral issues and often have a hard time in school and getting along with others.

Partial FAS

Those with partial FAS show most of the signs of a fully developed case of FAS, but not all of them. Although there are less symptoms with partial FAS, the impact it has on a person lasts a lifetime. Children diagnosed with partial FAS often have trouble in school and exhibit similar CNS differences as children with FAS, but do not meet all the requirements for a FAS diagnosis.

  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND): People with ARND may have problems with behavior as well as learning and intellectual disabilities. Someone with ARND may have difficulties with memory, attention, judgement, and poor impulse control.
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD): A person with ARBD may have problems with hearing, the heart, kidneys, bones, or a mix of these.

Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE)

ND-PAE was introduced and included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (DSM 5) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The addition was made to distinguish people who suffered from the mental impacts of in-utero exposure to alcohol. People with ND-PAE have problems with thinking, behavior, and life skills.

How Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnosed?

Diagnosing FAS and other FASDs can be difficult because there is no medical test, such as a blood test, for these conditions. Early diagnosis can help reduce the risk of long-term problems for children with FAS, so it is important to let your doctor know if you drank alcohol while pregnant. The sooner the diagnosis, the better the outcome for your child in the future.

Physical exams done on babies may show a heart murmur or other heart problems that could be linked to FAS. As the baby matures there may be other physical signs, such as delayed growth and abnormal facial features, that can help confirm diagnosis. Although there is no cure for FASDs, research shows that early intervention treatment services can improve a person’s quality of life.


Fetal alcohol syndrome is preventable by completely avoiding alcohol during pregnancy. Damage can occur in the earliest weeks of pregnancy so, if you are trying to get pregnant, it is best to avoid all alcohol.

If you are currently pregnant or would like to be, but have an alcohol problem, the best time to seek treatment is now. Giving up on alcohol or overcoming dependency is challenging but absolutely necessary in order to lower the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome. Contact a treatment provider who can help answer any rehab-related questions or discuss treatment options.

  • Author: Ginni Correa | Last Updated: September 30, 2021

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    Ginni Correa

    Digital Content Writer

    Ginni Correa is a Latinx writer and activist living in Orlando, FL. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida and double majored in Psychology and Spanish with a minor in Latin American Studies.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

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