Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Like any syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a group of signs and symptoms that appear together and indicate a certain condition. In the case of FAS, the signs and symptoms are birth defects that result from a woman's use of alcohol during her pregnancy. Among their symptoms, children with FAS may grow less quickly than other children, have facial abnormalities and have problems with their central nervous systems, including mental retardation.
In the United States, FAS is one of the leading causes of birth defects and is thought to be the most common cause of preventable mental retardation. Each year between 5,000 and 12,000 American babies are born with the condition. FAS is sometimes called fetal alcohol abuse syndrome.
Usually, FAS is diagnosed only when a child has the following major clinical manifestations, or signs:
However, children affected by FAS may have any or all of the signs and symptoms listed above, along with the following:
Studies have shown that the more severe the physical characteristics of FAS are in a child, the more severe his or her mental impairment tends to be.
Children born with FAS may develop secondary conditions as a result of their syndrome. These secondary conditions can include the following:
FAS is caused by a woman's use of alcohol during her pregnancy. The alcohol that a pregnant woman drinks travels through her bloodstream and across the placenta to her fetus, or developing baby. A fetus's small body breaks down alcohol much more slowly than an adult's body does. So the alcohol level in the fetus's blood is higher than in the mother's blood, and the alcohol remains in the fetus's blood longer. This exposure of the fetus to alcohol causes FAS.
Women who drink frequently (four or five alcoholic beverages or more per day) greatly increase the chances that their babies will have FAS. However, no amount of alcohol use during pregnancy has been proven safe. The effects of FAS may also be seen in children whose mothers drank moderately or lightly during pregnancy. An average of only one drink per day increases a baby's risk of FAS.
Diagnostic and Test Procedures
No definitive diagnostic tests exist to identify FAS. Diagnosis depends on a caregiver's expertise with the specific characteristics associated with FAS. Experts think that, as a result, FAS is widely underdiagnosed.
Although there is no cure for FAS, children who are diagnosed early -- preferably by preschool age -- have a better chance of overcoming the condition because from early on their education can be designed to maximize their potential.