Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is 100% preventable.

Apr 21, 2023, 14:39 PM by Dr. Sally Robinson

pregnant woman getting baby checked with stethoscope

The March of Dimes spans over 80 years. It began with the fight against polio. When immunizations conquered polio, it continued with the goal of prevention of birth defects dedicated to creating a world of healthy moms and babies. 

Many things can alter the normal intrauterine development of the fetus. The factors that can alter a fetus may come from genetics, the environment, medications, infections, and some very common things such as alcohol and sugar.

High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) is felt to be the cause of harmful effects on an infant, primarily the heart. Alcohol is known to be the harmful factor causing a group of problems in babies whose mothers drank.

April is Fetal Alcohol Awareness Month.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has a discussion about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) in healthychildren.org.  These effects can have lifelong implications, including physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 8000 babies in the U.S. could be born each year with full FAS.  Part of the difficulty in obtaining an exact number is that only 20% of the individuals have abnormal bodily features that are diagnostic of fetal alcohol exposure.  It is felt that the number of children affected is much higher because of the limitations in diagnosis.

FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) is on the most severe and describes people with the greatest harmful effects that have symptoms so distinct that the diagnosis is based on special measurements and findings in each of the following areas:

  • Three specific facial abnormalities: a smooth philtrum (the area between the nose and upper lip), thin upper lip, small horizontal eye measurements
  • Growth deficit
  • Central nervous system abnormalities

While some individuals with FASD do not have abnormal facial features or growth problems, they may have problems with how their brain and nervous system were formed.  They may have problems with intellectual disability, behavior and learning problems.

FASDs can happen only when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol.  The alcohol crosses the placenta and enters the baby’s blood where it can damage the developing brain and other organs. It is difficult to diagnose FASDs as there is no single test that can cover the broad range of FASD signs and symptoms.   FASDs are 100% preventable if a woman does not drink alcohol during pregnancy.

There is no one treatment for a child with FASD but each child with FASD should be associated with a medical home to coordinate and facilitate all the necessary medical, behavioral, social and educational services.

There is no cure for FASDs but identifying children with FASDs as early as possible as early identification and enrollment in therapy and educational programs can significantly improve an affected child’s development and future.

There is no safe time during pregnancy to drink and there is no safe amount to drink.  Remember this is 100% preventable.

Every pregnancy should have good prenatal care to help provide a healthy mother and baby.

Dr. Sally Robinson
Clinical Professor, Dept. of Pediatrics

Keeping Kids Healthy
Published 04/2023

Also see:
UTMB Health Children's Complex Care
UTMB Health Primary Care Pediatrics

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