Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Exposing an unborn baby to alcohol is the leading, preventable cause of mental retardation.
It is estimated that one in every 500 babies born has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Even more, it is expected that 150 babies born each year in Missouri will have FAS, according to the Central Missouri Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Center.
FAS is a condition that results from prenatal alcohol exposure. Put quite simply: if you drink when you are pregnant so does your baby, putting him or her at risk of FAS. The alcohol in a mother’s blood passes through the placenta to the baby through the umbilical cord.
The defects associated with FAS are irreversible and include serious physical, mental and behavioral problems. The defects do vary from one child to another.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is 100 percent preventable if a woman does not drink alcohol during while she is pregnant. There is no known safe amount of alcohol to drink while pregnant. There is also no safe time during pregnancy to drink and no safe kind of alcohol. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, still birth, and a range of lifelong disorders.
A Little History
While the dangers of using alcohol during pregnancy had been suspected for quite some time, FAS was formally described in 1968 by P. Lemoine and colleagues from France in 127 children of alcoholic parents. Their report in a French pediatric journal drew little attention, however.
Five years later, a real focus on FAS came after it was redescribed in 1973 by K.L. Jones and colleagues from Seattle in eight children of mothers with chronic alcoholism. Their report in the British medical journal The Lancet generated a flood of reports about FAS.
And now, each year in the U.S., as many as 40,000 babies are born with some type of alcohol-related damage.
Signs and Symptoms
FAS is not a single birth defect, but rather a cluster of related problems.
Most of the features of FAS are variable and can range from mild to severe. They may or may not be present in a given child. There are, however, common and consistent features of FAS which include the growth, performance, intelligence, head and face, skeleton, and heart of the child.
The following is a list of possible signs and symptoms:
Distinctive facial features, including small eyes, a very thin upper lip, a short and upturned nose, and a smooth skin surface (or ridge) between the nose and upper lip called the phitrum.
Deformities of joints, limbs, and fingers.
Slow physical growth before and after birth.
Vision difficulties or hearing problems.
Small head circumference and brain size (microcephaly).
Mental retardation and delayed development.
Abnormal behavior, such as short attention span, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, extreme nervousness and anxiety.
Difficulty in school (especially with math).
Speech and language delays.
Intellectual disability or low IQ (the average IQ of a person with FAS is in the 60s, which is considered mild mental retardation).
Poor reasoning and judgment skills
Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones
Causes and Prevention
When a woman drinks alcohol, it enters her bloodstream and reaches her developing fetus by crossing the placenta. Because a fetus metabolizes alcohol slower than an adult, the developing baby's blood alcohol concentrations are higher than those in the mother’s body. Alcohol also interferes with the delivery of oxygen and the best nutrition to the baby's developing tissues, organs and brain.
The more a woman drinks while pregnant, the greater the risk she places to her unborn baby. The risk is present at any time during pregnancy.
There is no known safe amount of alcohol consumption during pregnancy as all consumed alcohol enters the bloodstream and passes to the baby. Women are advised not to drink alcohol if they are pregnant, thinks they may be pregnant, or if they are attempting to become pregnant. The baby could be put at risk even before a woman realizes she is pregnant. And in the U.S., half of all pregnancies are unplanned.
Tests and Diagnosis
While doctors cannot diagnose Fetal Alcohol Syndrome before a baby is born, they can assess the health of the mother and her baby during pregnancy. If a pregnant woman reports to her doctor when she consumed alcohol and the amount, her doctor can help determine the risk of FAS to her unborn baby.
Also, if a mother lets her child's doctor know that she drank while she was pregnant, the doctor can be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of FAS in the child's first weeks, months and years of life.
There is no medical test, such as a blood test, to diagnose FAS. But rather doctors assess the following to make a diagnosis:
Doctors may refer children with possible fetal alcohol syndrome to a medical genetics specialist to rule out other disorders with similar signs and symptoms, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Williams Syndrome.
FAS lasts a lifetime. There is no cure or specific treatment, but research shows that early intervention can help improve a child’s development.
Many types of treatment options exist, including medical care, medication to help with some symptoms, behavior and education therapy, parent training, and other alternative approaches. There is no one treatment that is right for every child. But good treatment plans will include close monitoring, follow-ups, and changes as needed along the way.
Also, four “protective factors” have been identified that can help reduce the effects of FASDs and help people with these conditions reach their full potential.
These protective factors include: a diagnosis before 6 years of age; a loving, nurturing, and stable home environment; the absence of violence; and an involvement in special education and social services.
Help in Missouri
The first state center devoted to FAS opened during the summer of 2004. The Central Missouri Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Center located in Columbia was initially funded by part of a $2.1 million Cooperative Agreement fund from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’
The center focuses on the diagnosis of the FAS, as well as education and prevention. The center provides diagnosis, referral and follow-up services for individuals suspected of having an alcohol-related condition and their families.
The grant is also reportedly going to provide funds for similar centers in Springfield and Cape Girardeau in the future. The goal of the FAS center is to offer a place where individuals suspected of having an alcohol-related disorder can be evaluated by specialists, and a place where their families can be provided with support and be linked with resources in their own communities. To set up an appointment or to ask questions regarding the center, call 800-645-6164.