Birth Defects Other Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a congenital condition caused by exposure to alcohol during fetal development. Alcohol can affect a developing fetus in many ways, and cause both cognitive and physical impairments.

Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs with varying severity, and with various combinations of symptoms. Though easily preventable, FAS is a common birth defect.

FAS Effects and Symptoms

Alcohol is toxic to a developing fetus. The symptoms of FAS vary widely from one pregnancy to the next.

The effects of alcohol on fetal development are wide ranging. Individuals who were exposed to alcohol in the womb may experience the following:

  • Anxiety and poor impulse control
  • Delayed physical development
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty with higher-level language and cognitive processes
  • Mental retardation
  • Small head circumference (microcephaly)
  • Vision or hearing problems.

Children with FAS may display characteristic facial features, such as:

  • Flattened cheekbones
  • Less visible groove between the nose and upper lip
  • Small eye openings.

Children affected by alcohol during their development may show some or any combination of the above symptoms, with varying severity. Therefore, FAS is sometimes known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

Mild symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome were once known as fetal alcohol effects (FAE). However, these milder symptoms are now defined more specifically. These conditions are currently called:

  • Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD): The presence of only physical birth defects (such as those affecting the heart and kidneys).
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND): The only symptoms present are behavioral and emotional.

FAS Treatment

Individuals with FAS and associated disorders struggle with the condition their entire lives, and may begin to experience greater difficulty as they grow older. This is not necessarily because the condition worsens over time, but because cognitive, emotional and behavioral demands increase throughout the course of a person’s life.

Limitations from FAS may prevent some individuals from holding a job or living independently. In severe cases, they may need constant care throughout their lives. Even when cognitive functioning is not affected, behavioral problems may hinder an individual’s ability to participate fully in society. However, a stable home environment and early and consistent access to special services can give affected children a better chance at success.

FAS Prevention

Prevention is the most important consideration when dealing with FAS. Congenital defects caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol are completely preventable. If a mother does not ingest alcohol during her pregnancy, she cannot bear a child with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Alcohol passes easily through the placenta from mother to child. The exact amount of alcohol that results in birth defects is not known, so expectant mothers should abstain from alcohol completely.

The first trimester is a critical period in fetal development. Women who are trying to conceive should abstain from alcohol to avoid exposing the fetus to alcohol even before the pregnancy has been confirmed.


Centers for Disease Control. (n.d.). Facts about FASDs.Retrieved April 26, 2010, from:

National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. (n.d.). FAQs. Retrieved April 26, 2010, from:

Kids Health. (n.d.). Fetal alcohol syndrome.Retrieved April 26, 2010, from: