Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects
(FAS · FAE)
In this condition factsheet:
The Facts on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol effects (FAE) are conditions associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy. FAS causes a variety of mental, physical, and developmental disabilities in the baby. FAE is a milder form of FAS.
If a pregnant woman drinks any alcohol at any time during pregnancy, the alcohol crosses the placenta to the fetus. Alcohol damages the developing cells of the fetus. The brain and central nervous system are particularly sensitive to alcohol and can suffer permanent damage.
Any amount can have some effect, so there is no minimum amount of alcohol in pregnancy that is safe. The developing fetus can't break down the alcohol as quickly as an adult, so its exposure to alcohol is actually higher than the mother's.
Causes of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects
FAS and FAE are caused during pregnancy by the mother drinking alcohol. Alcohol damages the developing brain and nervous system of the baby, leading to mental, physical, and developmental problems.
The following factors affect whether FAS or FAE will occur and how severe the condition may be:
- timing of alcohol use during the pregnancy
- amount and frequency of alcohol consumption
- the mother's general health
- resources available to the mother
Consuming alcohol in any form during pregnancy is dangerous to the fetus. Alcohol is officially classified as a known teratogen, which means it can cause birth defects in the fetus. The more alcohol a pregnant woman drinks, the greater the risk of the fetus developing FAS or FAE. Drinking early in pregnancy may cause changes in the facial features, heart and other organs, bones, and the central nervous system. In Canada, about 15% of women use alcohol during pregnancy.
FAS occurs in about 1 of every 500 to 3,000 live births each year. It is also estimated that about 1,000 babies will be born with FAE each year. The lack of awareness of the effects of alcohol as a teratogen on a developing fetus is one reason for the high incidence of FAS and FAE.
Symptoms and Complications of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Effects
A child who has FAS displays defects at birth or during development. The most common physical effects of FAS are:
- central nervous system abnormalities (problems with brain development and behaviour)
- a particular pattern of facial features (see below)
- slower than average growth
Children who do not have all three characteristics listed above are said to have FAE.
Signs of central nervous system abnormalities include delayed development, behavioural problems, or learning disabilities and intellectual impairment. For example, children with FAS may develop the ability to speak or walk later than normal. Behavioural problems may include hyperactivity, nervousness, anxiety, and short attention spans.
Typical facial malformations features include short eye slits or drooping eyes, a thin upper lip, flattened cheekbones, and the absence of a distinct groove between the upper lip and nose.
A child with FAS or FAE may be smaller for their age than normal. At birth, the baby may be undersized or have a small head. Other defects include malformation of internal organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys. Visual impairment and hearing problems may also exist.
Children with FAS are often naïve. With poor judgment and decision-making skills, they sometimes find themselves facing substance abuse and difficulties with the law later in life.