Medical Definition of Fetal alcohol syndrome

Reviewed on 3/29/2021

Fetal alcohol syndrome: The sum total of the damage done to the child before birth as a result of the mother drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) always involves brain damage, impaired growth, and head and face abnormalities.

No amount of alcohol has been proven safe during pregnancy. Women who are or may become pregnant are therefore strongly advised to avoid alcohol. Even light drinking (less than three alcoholic drinks per week) during the first trimester of pregnancy has been reported to be associated with memory and learning problems that can be detected in the child at age 14.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of the leading causes of mental retardation in the US. FAS is an irreversible, lifelong condition that affects every aspect of a child's life and the lives of the child's family. However, FAS is 100% preventable -- if a woman does not drink alcohol while she is pregnant. If a pregnant woman drinks alcohol but her child does not have all the symptoms of FAS, it is possible that her child may be born with alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disabilities (ARND). Children with ARND may demonstrate learning and behavioral problems caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol.

There is no safe amount of alcohol that a woman can drink while pregnant. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, so does her fetus, because alcohol crosses the placenta freely. There is no safe dose of alcohol in pregnancy, and there does not appear to be a safe period during pregnancy for drinking. All drinks containing alcohol can hurt an unborn baby. A standard 12-ounce can of beer has the same amount of alcohol as a 4-ounce glass of wine or a 1-ounce shot of straight liquor. In addition, some alcoholic drinks, such as malt beverages, wine coolers, and mixed drinks often contain more alcohol than a 12-ounce can of beer. If a pregnant woman does drink, it is never too late for her to stop. The sooner a pregnant woman stops drinking, the better it will be for both her and her baby.

There is no cure for FAS. However, with early identification and diagnosis, children with FAS can receive services such as special education that can help increase their potential.



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