Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a specific pattern of abnormalities among infants born to alcoholic mothers. This pattern was first described during the late 1960s and given the name fetal alcohol syndrome in 1973. It is now estimated to occur in one out of every 1,000 births or approximately 5,000 cases per year.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Symptoms

  1. Poor growth before or after birth, with weight, height, and head circumference smaller than 90 percent of other newborns.
  2. Abnormalities of central-nervous-system function. Of these, mental retardation is the most significant, seen in more than 80 percent of affected children. Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of the leading causes of mental retardation in the United States. Other problems include irritability during infancy, hyperactivity during childhood, and delays in development. In some infants, jitteriness soon after birth is the direct result of alcohol withdrawal. Abnormalities in the central nervous system caused by alcohol may also affect development of bones and joints.
  3. Various defects of the face, eyes, and ears. These are often more apparent during infancy and may become less obvious as the child grows into adult-hood. Symptoms may include incomplete development of the facial bones, upper lip, a short nose, prominence of the vertical skin fold on each side of the nose, and drooping upper eyelids. Various visual disturbances may be present also, including incomplete development of the optic nerve, misalignment of the eyes, nearsightedness, and astigmatism. Varying degrees of hearing loss are common in infants with this syndrome. These abnormalities frequently lead to delays in language development.
  4. Other birth defects occur in infants with this syndrome, including a variety of congenital abnormalities of the heart (affecting approximately 30 percent) and the urinary tract (affecting about 10 percent).

Alcohol Use during Pregnancy

Warnings about the effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy have been raised for centuries and are now more widely publicized than ever before. Nevertheless, recent estimates suggest that one in three pregnant women use alcohol.

Two basic facts about alcohol and pregnancy are extremely important:

  • There is no safe time to drink during pregnancy. While the first three months of development after conception are usually when the growing baby is most vulnerable to drugs and toxins, alcohol can cause problems throughout the entire pregnancy.
  • The toxic effects of alcohol on the fetus are known to be dose-dependent, that is, potentially more serious with higher levels in the bloodstream. Drinking a lot in a short period of time (as occurs during a binge) may be more hazardous than a steady intake of smaller amounts. Women, who regularly consume more than eight drinks per week, whether all at once or spread evenly over seven days, run a 30 to 40 percent risk of having an infant with fetal alcohol syndrome.

It is impossible to know whether any amount of alcohol in any form can be considered safe for a woman to drink while a baby is growing inside. Therefore, the best option is to abstain entirely from alcohol throughout the entire pregnancy. It is wise for woman to abstain or to consume no more than two alcoholic drinks per week if she is not yet pregnancy but plan to become so in the near future.

While we know of no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome, infants who have it can be helped to reach their full potential. Particular attention should be paid to the child’s vision and hearing to detect and treat problem that could impair normal development. Infants and children with fetal alcohol syndrome are also prone to develop ear infections and persistent fluid behind the eardrums, which should be treated to prevent hear loss. Cavities in the teeth are more common in these children, so conscientious dental care is important. When these children approach school years, educational tests and special programs should be sought for them.