What Is FASD?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a group of conditions and symptoms that appear during childhood in children whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. Types of FASDs include fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, and alcohol-related birth defects. FASD can result from alcohol exposure at any time before birth—including before the mother-to-be knows she is pregnant.

Exposure to alcohol in utero (before birth) can disrupt fetal development, resulting in physical impairments, difficulties learning and behavior problems. Children with FASD often experience a combination of symptoms that continue throughout their lifetimes. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can be prevented: Women who are pregnant or who may be pregnant should not drink alcohol.


In February 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that an estimated 3.3 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 years in the United States are at risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy. These women are sexually active, drink alcohol, and are not using reliable contraceptives to prevent pregnancy. In addition, 3 out of every 4 women who are trying to conceive do not stop drinking alcohol as soon as they stop using birth control. Most women aren't aware that they are pregnant until 4 to 6 weeks into the pregnancy—putting their unborn baby at risk if they drink during that time.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), no amount of alcohol is safe for women who are pregnant. However, it's estimated that in the United States, 20 to 30 percent of women who are pregnant drink during their pregnancy. Babies born to mothers who binge drink (defined as 4 or more alcoholic drinks within a short period of time) or regularly drink heavily are at the highest risk for FASD.

Development of FASD can depend on a number of factors, such as how much and how often the expectant mother drinks and at what stage of fetal development the alcohol exposure occurs. According to the NIH, other factors can increase FASD risk, including the following:

  • Inadequate prenatal care
  • Poor health and nutrition
  • A lack of awareness about the dangers of alcohol during pregnancy
  • Culture that promotes or accepts heavy drinking
  • Social isolation and high stress levels

Signs and Symptoms of FASD

Exposure to alcohol before birth can cause a wide-range of lifelong problems, from relatively mild to serious. In severe cases, fetal death can result. Physical symptoms of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders include:

  • Abnormal facial features (small eyes, smooth groove between the nose and upper lip [called the philtrum], thin upper lip)
  • Deformities of the joints or limbs
  • Difficulties feeding and sleeping in infants
  • Growth problems (low birth weight, small stature)
  • Hearing problems, vision problems
  • Small head size
  • Poor coordination
  • Problems with the central nervous system, heart, kidneys or other organs

Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders often have difficulty getting along with others and problems in school. Adults with FASD may have trouble developing relationships and holding a job. Learning disabilities and behavioral problems that may be associated with FASD include:

  • Delayed speech and language development
  • Emotional problems
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Inattention
  • Low IQ (intelligence)
  • Poor memory, reasoning skills, judgment and social skills
  • Problems communicating effectively

Treatment for FASD

Although fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are permanent and there isn't a cure, studies have shown that early intervention and treatment can help improve outcomes for children affected. Treatment options include behavioral and educational therapy, family training programs and medications. Children with FASD should be closely monitored and treatment plans should be adjusted as necessary.

If your child is at risk for FASD, talk to your pediatrician. He or she can refer you to a medical specialist, such as a developmental pediatrician or child psychologist, and help you contact important resources like your state's public early childhood system. Generally, the effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can be reduced if the child is diagnosed before the age of 6; lives in a loving, stable home environment without violence; and receives special education and social services.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) and National Institutes of Health (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism); Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 09 Sep 2012

Last Modified: 05 Feb 2016