Get help today 888-744-0069 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is quite common despite its potentially harmful effects on the developing fetus.1 Data from The Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS) found that 30.3% of women reported consuming alcohol at some point during their pregnancy.1

Prenatal alcohol exposure may threaten the viability of the fetus and can result in a host of neurological and physical complications for the infant.1 This includes structural abnormalities, spontaneous abortion, central nervous system impairments, impaired fetal growth, and neurodevelopmental disabilities.1, 2 These adverse health outcomes are commonly referred to as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).1

The most well-known of the FASD is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which comprises a multitude of cognitive, behavioral, central nervous system, facial, and growth disabilities.1, 2 Given the negative effects that drinking can have on both parent and child, it is critical that pregnant people struggling with alcohol use receive proper medical care, including alcohol rehabilitation treatment.

This article will provide an overview of the following topics related to fetal alcohol syndrome:

  • What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
  • Other Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.
  • Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
  • How to Prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
  • Diagnosis and Treatment of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
  • How to Find Help for Alcohol Misuse and Addiction.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) can develop when an infant has been exposed to alcohol before birth.3 Alcohol passes into the baby’s circulation as it passes through the umbilical cord.3 FASDs comprise several disorders, among them alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).3

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) represents a relatively complex combination of issues amongst the FASD spectrum.3 Individuals with FAS can experience complications with the central nervous system (CNS), facial deformities, and growth deficiencies.3 They may experience challenges with vision, hearing, speaking, concentration, learning, and short- or long-term memory.3

Commonly, a person with FAS may experience several of these conditions simultaneously.3 Though estimates vary, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies have, in the past, identified 1 infant with FAS out of every 1,000 live births in the United States.4

Alcohol use during pregnancy can place infants and children at risk for serious challenges in cognition, behavior, and physical aberrations. In severe cases, it may put their life at risk. Adverse outcomes associated with drinking alcohol during pregnancy include:

  • FASDs.3
  • Organ or bone defects.3
  • Physical abnormalities of the head and face.3
  • Cognitive impairment, such as difficulties with learning, memory, and concentration.3
  • Intellectual disabilities.3
  • Behavioral problems, such as mood issues, severe tantrums, or hyperactivity.3
  • Challenges with activities of daily living (ADLs), including bathing, dressing, or playing with others.3
  • Miscarriage.5
  • Stillbirth.5

There is no safe time to use alcohol nor is there a safe amount to consume during pregnancy.5 In fact, alcohol may cause harm to a fetus before a woman even knows she is pregnant.5 When a woman consumes alcohol during any stage of pregnancy, fetal growth, as well as the still-developing fetal brain may be affected by the exposure.5

Women who binge drink (4 or more alcoholic drinks at once) before becoming pregnant may be at heightened risk for prenatal alcohol exposure due to continued use during pregnancy.1, 6

If alcohol cessation is a challenge, pregnant women who binge drink should seek help at a medical detox center, drug rehab for women, or facility for alcohol addiction.

Other Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Although FAS may be the most widely recognized of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, other FASDs can be debilitating and disrupt the quality of life for a child. Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) can result in intellectual disabilities, and children with ARND may experience challenges with learning and behavioral problems, both of which can impact school performance. A child with ARND may exhibit difficulties with impulse control, memory, attention span, decision-making, and math.3

Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD) represent another condition on the spectrum of FASDs that poses considerable impairment and may undermine the quality of life for a child. These types of developmental issues can lead to problems with the bones, kidneys, and heart, and can also result in hearing problems.3

Another FASD that may develop in an infant exposed to alcohol before birth is neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE).3 This condition involves a host of neurological and behavioral problems, including:3

  • Thinking and memory. The child may find it difficult to organize, plan, and retain information they have already learned.
  • A child may exhibit myriad behavioral problems, including mood disturbances, such as heightened irritability, severe tantrums, and impaired attention, specifically pivoting from one topic to another.
  • Activities of daily living. The child may struggle with basic tasks of daily living, such as dressing, playing with other children, and bathing.

ND-PAE is recognized in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorder, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), as its diagnostic criteria address mood and behavioral disturbances.3 The American Psychiatric Association (APA) asserts that in order for a psychiatrist to diagnose a child with ND-PAE, the mother must have consumed more than 13 alcoholic beverages per month or 2 in one sitting during pregnancy.3

Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Signs and symptoms of FAS can vary among people and present from mild to severe.3 Signs and symptoms of FAS can be distressing and debilitating (in more severe cases). This can include significant disruptions at school, work, or home; interpersonal relationships; and intrapersonal beliefs. Primary signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome include:3

  • Size. People with FAS may be shorter or thinner than those of average height and weight. Additionally, their head size may be smaller.
  • Philtrum abnormality (the ridge between the nose and the mouth). Those with FAS may feature a smooth philtrum, as opposed to being raised as in those without FAS.
  • Learning disabilities.
  • Delays in language and speech.
  • Challenges with coordination, attention, and memory.
  • Problems with math.
  • Hyperactive behavior.

How to Prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Abstaining from drinking alcohol during pregnancy is crucial to preventing fetal alcohol exposure and the development of FASDs in infants. If stopping alcohol use poses significant challenges, such as difficulty quitting on your own or experiencing alcohol withdrawal, you should seek help immediately.

Alcohol rehabilitation facilities offer alcohol cessation in a safe, professionally supervised, and comfortable environment. Certain alcohol or substance use treatment centers even cater to the unique needs of pregnant women. Pregnant women struggling with alcohol misuse have options, and these options may prove beneficial to a woman and her child.

When researching and identifying treatment options, you may inquire about whether they accept pregnant women with alcohol use disorder (AUD). If so, the facility likely will schedule the caller for an evaluation to determine if their clinical and medical programming is suitable to the patient’s needs. If they align, the facility will schedule an intake, or an in-depth assessment. They likely will collect other relevant information, including substance use, medical, family, trauma, and mental health history.

When admitted to the facility, the individual will likely begin treatment in a detox program for safe alcohol withdrawal management. The initial detox stage of treatment involves considerable oversight and management of withdrawal symptoms. Detox ensures that a pregnant woman safely withdraws from alcohol under medical supervision. This not only protects the mother from the onset of adverse symptoms but also safeguards the health and well-being of the baby.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Signs and symptoms vary among infants and children and can range in severity and visibility.7 A trained physician likely will be able to detect early FAS signs based on a thorough evaluation and guide a parent in addressing intervention services. Early intervention promotes greater health outcomes, so the sooner a child is assessed, the better.7

If diagnosed, many children may be eligible for early intervention services, which strengthen skills among children ages 0 to 3.7 Therapists trained to work with infants and children diagnosed with FAS provide support in achieving developmental milestones, including the ability to walk, talk, and interact with others.7 These professionals often identify and address areas where delays are most prevalent to enhance development over time.7 Although there is no cure for FAS, early detection and intervention can promote more favorable outcomes for infants and children.7

Prevention is the ultimate intervention. By abstaining from alcohol use during pregnancy, a woman can safeguard her child from FAS.

How to Find Help for Alcohol Misuse and Addiction

If you or someone you know is pregnant and currently struggling with alcohol misuse and addiction, seek out help immediately. Call our helpline for more information about your rehabilitation options at . Our admissions navigators can answer any questions you may have.

If you are seeking treatment at an alcohol treatment center, use the directory for options available to you. You can also instantly check coverage by your health insurance provider by verifying your insurance.

Help is available for pregnant alcohol users. You and your child may circumvent the risks of FASDs by seeking treatment and, consequently, discover the joys of recovery and health together.

Addiction Treatment Levels of Care

Recommended Alcohol Rehabilitation-Related Articles

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.