What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), also commonly referred to as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), is a syndrome and spectrum of disorders that occur in babies who were exposed to alcohol while they were in utero. Exposure to alcohol in the womb can cause a number of problems in babies and children, including brain damage, growth problems, intellectual disabilities, developmental delays, and behavioral problems. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are on a spectrum due to the varying severity of symptoms in individuals. The Special Olympics Arizona team is breaking down fetal alcohol syndrome: what causes it, how common it is, and how it may be prevented.
What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Fetal alcohol syndrome is caused by a pregnant mother consuming alcohol, which then spreads to the fetus through the umbilical cord. Unlike an adult, a fetus is unable to metabolize alcohol, and it will stay in the system longer than is safe. Alcohol will interfere with the normal development of a fetus, particularly the brain and nervous systems. Alcohol can kill cells in various parts of the fetus, resulting in abnormal physical development. Alcohol will also interfere with the way nerves develop, including how they travel throughout the body and how they communicate. Alcohol can constrict the blood vessels, slowing blood flow to the placenta and temporarily limiting the oxygen and nutrients that can reach the fetus. This restriction, even if temporary, can have terrible effects on the fetus’ development. When the body processes alcohol, toxic byproducts are produced, which can reach the fetus and affect the baby’s brain cells, causing damage. A baby in utero exposed to alcohol can experience a number of detrimental developmental effects, all of which are preventable by a pregnant mother avoiding alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Risk Factors
Any amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy is a risk factor for your baby developing fetal alcohol syndrome. There is no safe amount of alcohol that can be consumed while pregnant without posing risks to the baby. It is recommended to avoid alcohol while trying to get pregnant since many mothers do not know they are pregnant for 4-6 weeks, and drinking alcohol during this time can cause risks to the developmental surge the fetus experiences in early pregnancy. All alcohol, including beer, wine, liquors, and ciders, can cause fetal alcohol syndrome. The more alcohol you drink during pregnancy, the greater the risk for your child. If you think you might be pregnant, are trying to get pregnant, or know you are pregnant, the best thing you can do is completely cut out any amount of alcohol consumption. This will eliminate any risk of your child developing fetal alcohol syndrome.
How Common Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
There are no exact statistics that keep track of how many individuals suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome, especially since it may be difficult for parents to admit they may have consumed alcohol while pregnant. Using available information, the CDC estimates that around 2 in every 1,000 live births in the U.S. will be a child born on the spectrum of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Some researchers estimate this number to be much higher, around 1 to 5 in every 100 live births. In 2019, a CDC study found that 1 in 9 pregnant people would have an alcoholic drink in a 30 day period.
Can Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Be Prevented?
Fetal alcohol syndrome is completely preventable if women avoid consuming alcohol during pregnancy. Some guidelines to follow to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome include:
- Don’t drink alcohol if you are trying to become pregnant. Many mothers will go 4-6 weeks, or longer, without knowing they are pregnant. During this time, the fetus is going through a surge in development which will shape their future development and their functioning body. If you are planning to become pregnant, avoiding drinking will help eliminate any risk you may be posing to your baby in the early stages of pregnancy should you become pregnant and not find out for 4-6 weeks.
- Avoid alcohol throughout your pregnancy. As mentioned, any amount of alcohol at any time throughout pregnancy puts your baby at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome. Avoiding alcohol completely throughout the duration of pregnancy is the only guaranteed preventative method for avoiding fetal alcohol syndrome.
- If you have an alcohol problem, seek help prior to getting pregnant. If you are aware you would one day like to become pregnant and have children, it is never too early to seek help if you have a drinking problem. Aside from preventing fetal alcohol syndrome, seeking help for alcohol problems will help your health as well. Someone can work with you to determine your level of dependence and develop a personalized treatment plan.
Is There a Cure for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
There is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome, and children who have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders will suffer from symptoms their entire lives. Some symptoms can be managed through treatments from a healthcare provider, but they will never go away. However, early intervention and treatment may help your child have a better chance of staying on track with their peers and lessening their symptoms. Treatments include using medication to treat symptoms like attention and behavioral issues, undergoing behavioral and educational therapies to treat emotional issues and learning concerns, and learning as a parent how to intervene and help your child. Parental training is designed to help parents understand the best ways to help their child deal with the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome and includes teaching parents different routines and rules that may help their child adapt to different situations. A stable home will help children with fetal alcohol syndrome cope with the emotional, physical, and behavioral difficulties they will face in the future. As a parent of a child with fetal alcohol syndrome, the best thing you can do for your child is provide a stable, loving home and offer them the support and interventions available to help them manage and cope with symptoms and side effects.