What Happens When a Baby Is Exposed to Alcohol
Learn about FASDs, how they affect children, and what types of treatment are available

When a baby is exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, it can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which can lead to birth defects and developmental disabilities.

Learn about FASDs, how they affect children, and what types of treatment are available.

What is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)?

Babies with FASDs can experience a wide range of impairments in physical growth, learning, and behavior. The most severe type of FASD is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which can cause severe physiological and intellectual disabilities in a growing baby. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified FAS into four categories based on criteria that include:

  • Selected facial malformations
  • Growth retardation
  • Central nervous system (CNS) abnormalities
  • Maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy
Table: Diagnoses under the umbrella of FASD
Diagnosis Growth FAS face Brain Alcohol
FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) Growth Face Severe Alc
PFAS (Partial FAS) Face Severe Alc
SE/AE* (Static Encephalopathy/Alc Exposed) Severe Alc
ND/AE (Neurobehavioral Disorder/Alc Exposed) Moderate Alc

Credit: FAS Diagnostic and Prevention Network, https://depts.washington.edu/fasdpn/htmls/fasd-fas.htm

How does fetal alcohol syndrome affect children?

Children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) have facial features such as:

  • Small eyes
  • Thin upper lip
  • Smooth philtrum (groove between the nose and upper lip)

Other features of the condition include the following:

  • Poor growth: Low birth weights
  • Birth defects: Heart, bone, and kidney problems, as well as vision problems and deafness
  • Neurologic problems: Seizures, poor balance, and poor coordination
  • Delayed development: Delay in reaching infant milestones
  • Behavioral problems: 
    • Babies: 
      • Crankiness 
      • Trouble sleeping
    • Older children: 
      • Lack of coordination and fine-motor skills
      • Trouble relating to others
      • Learning problems, poor memory, and poor problem-solving skills
      • Behavior problems such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and poor attention and concentration

How is fetal alcohol syndrome diagnosed?

Diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome is made based on symptoms, especially if it is known that the mother drank alcohol during the pregnancy. However, FASD in children with milder symptoms can be difficult to diagnose. There are no lab tests that can confirm a diagnosis of the condition.

In some cases, a team of specialists can help assess the child and make a diagnosis. This team may include developmental pediatricians, neurologists, genetic specialists, psychologists, speech therapists, and occupational therapists.

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What treatments are available for babies exposed to alcohol?

Although fetal alcohol syndrome FAS is a lifelong condition with no cure, early intervention and support can help improve child development.

Treatment will depend on the range of the baby's symptoms. The most common approaches include:

  • Early intervention services that teach children under age 3 to walk, talk, and socialize with others
  • Behavior and education therapy programs that can help teach social skills and self-regulation
  • Parent training that helps parents or caregivers understand FAS, how it affects their children, and how to care for them
  • Family therapy or counseling

Although medications specifically for the treatment of FAS have not yet been approved, doctors may use drugs to treat specific symptoms:

  • Stimulants that may help with attention or emotional regulation
  • Neuroleptic drugs that may help with aggression or convulsions

Alternative therapies can also help manage FAS symptoms:

  • Relaxation therapy or meditation
  • Biofeedback
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Yoga
  • Creative art therapy
  • Animal-assisted therapy

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Medically Reviewed on 5/11/2022
References
Image Source: iStock Image

Vorgias D, Bernstein B. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. [Updated 2021 Jul 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448178/

Medline Plus. Fetal alcohol syndrome. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000911.htm