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The Dangers of Alcohol During Pregnancy: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS, is a serious alcohol related birth defect that appears in both fetuses and newborn babies.
What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Fetal alcohol syndrome is caused by over-consumption or abuse of alcohol by a woman during pregnancy. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol there are increased risks on the fetus. The alcohol passes to the fetus through the placenta and can be detrimental to a growing fetus’ development.
Medical professionals recommend that if you are pregnant you do not drink any amount of alcohol since there is no standard for a safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy. It is unknown the effects even a small amount of alcohol could have on a developing fetus, but there could still be negative outcomes. The more alcohol that is ingested by a mother during pregnancy, the more physical and mental damage can be done to the fetus.
Although drinking alcohol at any point during pregnancy can be harmful to a growing fetus, studies have shown that consuming large amounts of alcohol within the first three months does the most harm and is more likely to cause fetal alcohol syndrome.
Signs and Symptoms in a Baby with FAS
A baby that is born with fetal alcohol syndrome will have one or more of the marked symptoms of FAS. These symptoms can be either mental or physical, with these sometimes going hand-in-hand.
Possible symptoms a baby born with FAS will experience are:
● Slow or poor growth rate before and after being born
● Being delayed in development in the areas of social, cognitive, speech, and coordination
● Low muscle tone
● Defects with the heart such as a heart murmur
● Abnormalities of the joints or bones
● Abnormalities of the kidneys
● Eye problems such as sensitivity to light or blindness
● Cleft lip
Babies born with FAS may have certain facial features that are a sign the baby has FAS. The presence of these facial features is usually indicative that the baby has suffered brain damage due to FAS. These physical facial markers are:
● Smaller than average head circumference
● Nasal bridge that sits low
● Small openings of the eyes
● Skin folds in the corners of the eyes
● A short nose
● The midface area is short
● Absence of a groove between the upper lip and the nose
● A thin upper lip
All of the above signs and symptoms are markers in a baby with FAS. Alcohol can affect all parts of a baby’s development and can range from mild to severe.
Diagnosing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
There are different guidelines and diagnostic methods that are used to diagnose fetal alcohol syndrome. In order for a physician to make the diagnosis of FAS, an extensive exam must be performed on the infant or child. The physician will examine growth and facial features and may look for other problems in the central nervous system, brain, heart, or joints.
Toxicology scans may be done on the mother or the baby and a brain imaging test may be performed on the baby as well.
There are four criteria that all must absolutely be met in order for FAS to be diagnosed.
● The child must have a shown or marked deficiency in growth. Their height and/or their weight must be at or below the 10th percentile.
● The child must have at least three of the facial features that appear in those with FAS.
● The physician must be able to find any type of central nervous system damage. This can be either functional damage, neurological damage, or structural damage.
● It must be either confirmed or unknown as to whether or not the child was exposed to alcohol in the womb.
Prevention and Treatment of FAS
The one and only way to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is for the pregnant mother to not drink alcohol during pregnancy. Women that are pregnant should abstain from drinking alcohol if they wish to avoid any fetal damage such as FAS.
Some women aren’t aware that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can severely harm the fetus. Educating pregnant women on the dangers of alcohol during pregnancy is another way in which FAS can be prevented.
Unfortunately there is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome. Treatments focus on treating the symptoms. For example, if a child suffers from a speech impediment due to FAS, they may work with a speech therapist. Treatments are custom tailored to fit the needs of the individual child.
Possible Long-Term Effects
There are numerous long-term effects a child with FAS could have to endure. Children with FAS may develop other conditions later on in life, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Almost all babies born with FAS suffer from some sort of brain damage or serious developmental delays that prevent them from living a normal life.
Possible long-term effects a child with FAS could face include:
● Sensory issues such as being overstimulated or understimulated with activities
● Language disorders and lack of understanding
● Memory issues, both long-term and short-term
● Problems telling fantasy from reality
● Mental retardation
● Delayed or poor motor skills, both fine and gross
● Problems with communication and socializing
● Learning disabilities
● Problems controlling anger
● Lack of impulse control
● Lack of proper judgement
● Becoming easily confused
● Problems with alcohol and drug abuse
Anyone with FAS may experience only a few or all of the possible noted long-term effects. Those with medium to severe long-term effects from fetal alcohol syndrome may end up in group homes and nursing homes where they can be properly cared for.