A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: Alcohol use during pregnancy can be dangerous

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). When planning to get pregnant or in the early months of finding out you are pregnant, there are a few steps to take to protect your health and health of your growing baby. This includes not drinking alcohol. If you are someone who typically drinks, you may struggle to quit cold turkey. A young boy shoveling sand in a sandbox

If you think your child may have a fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, talk to your child’s provider to share your concerns.“Alcohol is considered a teratogen and can affect the fetus at any stage of pregnancy,” said Angelica Lorenzo, D.O., OB-GYN provider with Marshfield Clinic Health System. “Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is a leading cause of birth defects.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy or when trying to get pregnant. Alcohol in the mother’s blood passes to the baby through the umbilical cord, which can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and a range of lifelong physical, behavioral and intellectual disabilities known as FASDs.

What are fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)?

FASDs describe a collection of conditions that can occur in individuals whose mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder, and alcohol related birth defects are conditions that fall under the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders umbrella.

“Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe end of the FASD spectrum,” Dr. Lorenzo said. “In the most extreme situation, fetal death can result from alcohol consumption.”

In infants to toddlers, FAS typically might manifest with physical symptoms such as abnormal facial features, growth problems, central nervous system problems, problems with learning, memory, attention span or communication. Alcohol-related birth defects also could lead to various physical problems such as heart, kidney, skeleton or hearing issues.

Symptoms in children and teens with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can include:

  • Developmental delays, such as taking longer to do things tham other children the same age can do like walking and talking.
  • Being more active than normal.
  • Having weak or floppy muscles.
  • Difficulty learning, hearing or seeing.
  • Difficulty with memory and thinking.
  • Difficulty paying attention and concentrating.
  • Difficulty communicating with other people.
  • Significantly higher chance of ADHD.
  • Increased chance of cognitive impairment.
  • Learning difficulties such as difficulty understanding, remembering, problem solving and following directions.
  • Difficulty controlling impulses, emotions and behaviors.

Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder might lead to intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior, learning and impulse control. People with FAS often have a hard time in academic and social settings.

“As an OB-GYN, I encourage all women to quit alcohol consumption if possible before conception,” Dr. Lorenzo said. “However, it is never too late in the pregnancy to stop drinking. The sooner a mother stops drinking, the less likely that symptoms will manifest or be severe.”

Diagnosing FASDs

If you think your child may have a FASDs, talk to your child’s provider to share your concerns. You may be referred to a specialist, like Nikki Anderson, N.P., pediatric behavioral health nurse practitioner at Marshfield Clinic Health System, to help diagnose and treat children with FASDs.

“There is no test for fetal alcohol syndrome,” Anderson said. “A diagnosis can be made by doing an assessment of the child, learning their symptoms and asking about prenatal exposure to alcohol.”

Treatment for FASDs

Unfortunately, there is no cure for FASDs. Anderson said early intervention is best.

“Any child who is suspected to have fetal alcohol syndrome should be evaluated for facial dysmorphic features and a neurobehavioral evaluation,” she said. “Since there is a significant increased chance of ADHD, cognitive impairment and learning difficulties, early evaluation and intervention is important to help the child have the best outcome possible.”

Some health care systems have a child development center with developmental behavioral pediatricians, who are able to do the initial evaluation. Other specialists that may be involved in care include psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists, geneticists, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, social workers and educational therapists.

If your child has difficulty with learning, behavioral or developmental settings, talk to your child’s provider to get evaluation and early intervention started.

Help also available for mothers

If you are pregnant and struggling to quit drinking alcohol, help is available. Your health care provider wants the best for you and your baby. Your women’s health provider can help you find a treatment location or alcoholic’s anonymous program near you.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a treatment locator website that may help find treatment programs. Another resource is “Rethinking Drinking,” which is a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. This website has contact information for self-help groups.

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