Women who consume alcohol while pregnant can give birth to infants with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). FASD is a group of conditions that can vary in mild-severe symptoms and can lead to numerous mental and physical congenital impairments and abnormalities.
Types of FASDs include the following:
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
- Partial fetal alcohol syndrome
- Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE)
- Alcohol-related neurodevelopment disorder (ARND)
- Alcohol-related birth defects
FAS is the most severe form of FASD. Children with FAS may have problems with vision, hearing, attention span, and the ability to communicate and learn. Much of the damage is long-lasting or irreversible.
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Causes
When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, some alcohol passes through the placenta to the unborn baby. The body of a developing fetus cannot process alcohol as efficiently as an adult, and the alcohol becomes more concentrated in the fetus’ body. It can impede oxygen and nutrition from getting to the child’s vital organs.
Damage is often sustained in the first few weeks of gestation because a pregnant woman may not be aware of her condition. The risk is even higher if the mother is an excessive drinker and continues to engage in this behavior throughout the pregnancy.
According to research, alcohol use tends to be the most detrimental to a child during the first trimester of pregnancy. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that alcohol use at any time during pregnancy can also be hazardous for the fetus.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Symptoms
Fetal alcohol syndrome can include a wide variety of problems, so there are many potential symptoms, which may include the following:
- Small head
- Lack of focus
- Impaired coordination
- Impaired judgment
- Problems hearing and seeing
- Heart problems
- Kidney defects and abnormalities
- Deformed limbs or fingers
- Mood swings
- Below average weight and height
- Learning disabilities
- Small, wide-set eyes
- Flat ridge between lip and nose
- Very thin upper lip
- Delayed development
- Cognitive impairments
- Speech problems
- Impaired social skills
- Uncoordinated movement
A medical exam of an infant may lead to the detection of a heart murmur or other cardiac issues. As the child grows, there may be other signs and symptoms, including slow growth rate, abnormal bone growth, and delayed language development.
A physician must first determine that the child has abnormal facial features, slower than expected growth, and central nervous system (CNS) problems manifesting either physically or behaviorally to diagnose FAS. They may also be hyperactive, exhibit a lack of focus, and have severe learning disabilities.
Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)
When a child does not meet the full diagnostic criteria for FAS but has a history of prenatal alcohol exposure and some abnormalities of the face, central nervous system, or growth problems, that child is considered to have partial FAS (pFAS).
Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE)
In addition to confirmed prenatal alcohol exposure, these individuals have impairment of neurocognition, self-regulation, and adaptive functioning. ND-PAE combines deficits in these three areas in conjunction with the following:
- Evidence of prenatal alcohol exposure
- Childhood-onset of symptoms
- Significant impairments or distress in social, academic, occupational, or other important areas of function
Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)
People with ARND don’t have abnormal facial features or issues with growth, but they do experience issues with how their brain and nervous system developed and how they function. These children may have intellectual disabilities, behavior or learning problems, and nerve or brain abnormalities.
In 2011, a federally convened committee that reviewed research noted that these children are most likely to have problems with adaptive functioning, neurocognitive development, or behavior regulation.
Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)
Children with ARBD have problems with how some of their organs developed and how they function, specifically the heart, bones, kidney, ears, and eyes. These young persons also may have one of the other FASDs.
FASD In Adulthood
A fact that remains mostly unaddressed is that, as they age, adult individuals with FASD conditions face a higher risk for developing a substance abuse disorder. According to a 1996 study, substance addiction was experienced by 30 percent of persons with FASD. Of the adults with FAE, 53 percent of males and 70 percent of females experienced substance abuse problems—more than five times the rate of the general population.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use During Pregnancy
In the long-term, FAS can contribute to many secondary disorders and problems that regularly make life harder for those who suffer from it, as well as and their caregiver(s).
Some of the most common secondary disorders include the following:
- Mental health conditions, including ADD/ADHD, depression, and psychotic disorders
- Academic challenges due to learning impairments and the inability to socialize and work well with others
- Legal problems related to a lack of anger control and an understanding of social cues
- Alcohol and drug abuse, dependence, and addiction
Secondary Conditions of FASD During Adulthood
The effects of FASD can be incredibly challenging to navigate during adulthood when the person is expected to take responsibility for themselves. Adults who suffer from fetal alcohol exposure often require help finding employment, housing, transportation, and daily life management.
Unfortunately, a significant number of those affected will never receive the resources and support they need to be productive and function in their daily lives. According to a University of Washington study of individuals with FAS age 6-51, nearly 80 percent had issues finding and maintaining employment. What’s more, over 60 percent of those age 12 and over had legal troubles, and 35 percent had alcohol and drug use disorders.
As people with a FASD enter adulthood, both they and their caregivers face additional challenges. Specialized coaches, counselors, therapists, and licensed health providers may be needed to help these individuals live happy, healthy, and relatively independent lives.
There are also several secondary effects that many persons with FAS experience, such as the following:
- Mental health conditions
- Inability to live independently
- Poor social skills
- Disrupted academic success
- Difficulty raising children
Late Diagnosis and Treatment
Unfortunately, FASD is not always easy to identify, and it may take years for symptoms to be accurately diagnosed. Tragically, those who are not diagnosed until later in life will not have received benefits from therapy and other resources targeted for young persons with a FASD at an early age.
Also, it may be challenging for a person to receive these services once adulthood has been reached, as most therapeutic services are designed for children. Furthermore, effects may be compounded by alcohol and drug abuse, co-occurring mental health disorders, or other conditions that may cause the syndrome to manifest differently or exacerbate symptoms.
A woman can prevent her infant from developing FASD by avoiding alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Women who have an alcohol dependence who would like to get pregnant should seek help from an addiction treatment center or individual specialist. Even for social drinkers, any alcohol use during the first trimester of pregnancy can be dangerous.
Getting Professional Treatment
Individuals who suffer from an alcohol dependence should seek long-term specialized substance abuse treatment. Our treatment programs at Just Believe Recovery Center include services such as behavioral therapy, counseling, peer group support, aftercare planning, and more.
We employ highly-skilled healthcare providers who specialize in addiction and provide those we treat with the tools, knowledge, and support they so desperately need to recover from alcohol abuse and sustain long-lasting sobriety and well-being.