Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders : Causes, Symptoms and Diagnosis

Dr. Vitthal Deshmukh

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Vitthal Deshmukh


5 min read


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are a high-risk disorder in kids caused by alcohol intake by expecting mothers. While therapy can help manage them, avoiding alcohol during pregnancy is key.

Key Takeaways

  • A fetal alcohol syndrome child may have growth and brain issues
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome treatment includes therapy and medication
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder symptoms include eye and heart defects

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders or FASDs are a range of developmental abnormalities that occur in children due to alcohol consumption by pregnant mothers. In India, around 5.8% of women drink alcohol in general, and up to 48% of women do so from the high-risk population [1]. While drinking in moderation is fine, excessive drinking can cause a number of health conditions. Even low levels of drinking in women as compared to men can lead to heart damage and various kinds of cancer such as breast cancer [2]. What's more, the consumption of alcohol by expecting mothers increases the risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in children, exposing them to health risks throughout their life.

Consuming alcohol during pregnancy affects the baby's health because the body is unable to process alcohol. When the alcohol stays in the mother's body for a longer period, it increases the risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. These are life-long conditions that can affect a child's physical and mental development. While fetal alcohol syndrome treatment doesn't include a cure, you can manage its symptoms.

Knowing the fetal alcohol spectrum disorder symptoms, causes, and treatment can help you protect your baby. Read on to know more about fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

What are Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders? 

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders occur when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol, which triggers a set of developmental abnormalities in the baby. The alcohol in the woman's body affects the baby's brain growth and hampers the baby's well-being after birth. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are lifelong and give rise to various symptoms as per the type of disorder the child might have.

There are five disorders commonly referred to under the group of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. 

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) 
  • Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS) 
  • A neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE) 
  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) 
  • Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD) 

These types of FASDs help differentiate the defects seen in the child and provide a proper diagnosis best for the child's health. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a severe type among these.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Causes of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Knowing the main cause of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, let's understand how fetal alcohol syndrome is caused. When a pregnant woman has any amount of alcohol, it passes through her umbilical cord and irreversibly hinders a baby's growth. Alcohol in her body stimulates teratogens that affect the central nervous system (CNS). This chemical can potentially damage normal brain development leading to anomalies. It can also reduce the child's brain volume and cause facial defects.

The more the amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy, the more the risk of physical defects in your child. As per research, drinking high amounts of alcohol during the first trimester can lead to issues with the brain and facial structure. In the second trimester, this can lead to a miscarriage, and in the third trimester, it can cause issues with brain volume, weight, and height [3].

Additional read: Apert Syndrome Symptoms

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Symptoms 

Fetal alcohol syndrome treatment depends on the signs visible in the child that include a mix of behavioral, learning, physical and social inabilities. This includes defects in the eyes, heart, kidneys, and hearing. Some other abnormalities include the following.  

  • Flat philtrum, which is the area between the nose and upper lip 
  • Thin upper lips 
  • Average or below-average height 
  • Low weight 
  • Neural abnormalities 
  • Horizontal eye openings 
  • Hyperactive behavior 
  • Sleeping problems 
  • Smaller head size
Alcohol ill-effects in pregnancy

Diagnosis of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Syndrome 

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders symptoms can help diagnose this syndrome. A pediatrician may check for developmental delays and behavioral symptoms along with the major signs of fetal alcohol syndrome to provide a diagnosis. The doctor may assess a few physical and mental deficits by checking the following.  

  • IQ and learning disabilities, if any  
  • Attention span, verbal learning, and recall, spatial memory, auditory and verbal processing 
  • Executive functioning abilities like doing different things at the same time  
  • Cognition-based difficulties and emotion-related difficulties) 

Doctors also consider the alcohol exposure duration and quantity of the mother to confirm the severity of the disorder. Fetal alcohol syndrome symptoms are similar to that of Williams syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). What's more, a fetal alcohol syndrome child is more likely to have ADHD. FASD also causes an increased risk to a child's mental and physical health. In fact, a fetal alcohol syndrome child is more likely to suffer from newborn cough due to lower immunity.

Additional read: Newborn Cough and Cold

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Treatment 

An early diagnosis can help your child's development and improve his or her ability to do normal activities in the later stage of childhood. As there is no specific fetal alcohol syndrome treatment or cure, the doctor focuses on exercises and activities that can improve the quality of the child's life by the following.  

  • Therapy to improve behavioral patterns 
  • Social skill and mental health therapy 
  • Training to boost learning and thinking abilities 
  • Life skills training 
  • Medicines that can help reduce some symptoms 
  • Building recognizing and memorizing abilities

You can avoid fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and other complications by avoiding alcohol during pregnancy. Do the same even while you are trying to get pregnant and until after you are done breastfeeding. Apart from that, you should also be on the lookout for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder symptoms. Be sure to consult a pediatrician as soon as you see these signs.

To understand FASDs better and keep an eye on your and your baby's health, book an online doctor consultation on Bajaj Finserv Health with the top practitioners. Consult with top OBGYNs and pediatricians in your vicinity and ensure that you protect your and your baby's health.

Published on 12 Aug 2022Last updated on 5 Apr 2023
  1. https://www.indianpediatrics.net/dec2008/dec-977-983.htm
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/womens-health.htm#:~:text=Impact%20on%20the%20Heart%3A%20Women,years%20of%20drinking%20than%20men.&text=Breast%20and%20other%20Cancers%3A%20Alcohol,esophagus%2C%20liver%2C%20and%20colon
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448178/

Please note that this article is solely meant for informational purposes and Bajaj Finserv Health Limited (“BFHL”) does not shoulder any responsibility of the views/advice/information expressed/given by the writer/reviewer/originator. This article should not be considered as a substitute for any medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult with your trusted physician/qualified healthcare professional to evaluate your medical condition. The above article has been reviewed by a qualified doctor and BFHL is not responsible for any damages for any information or services provided by any third party.

Dr. Vitthal Deshmukh

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Vitthal Deshmukh

, MBBS 1 , DCH 2

Dr. Vitthal Deshmukh is Child Specialist Practicing in Jalna, Maharashtra having 7 years of experience.

Health Videos

Mobile Frame
Download our app

Download the Bajaj Health App

Stay Up-to-date with Health Trends. Read latest blogs on health and wellness. Know More!

Get the link to download the app

Google PlayApp store