Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

The use of alcohol during pregnancy is a public health problem which can have lifelong consequences for the baby.

Several decades ago the medical profession studied the effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and identified the condition as fetal alcohol syndrome. The United States Surgeon General has published material which indicates that no woman who is pregnant should drink alcohol. There is no safe amount of alcohol that she can consume, and none of the trimesters of pregnancy is a safe time for that either.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a group of medical conditions which may affect the offspring if the mother drinks while she is pregnant. These consequences include behavioral disorders, growth deficiencies, central nervous system impairment, abnormal facial features, and impairment of intellectual development. There may be hyperactive behavior, low birth weight, speech and language delays, and heart, kidney, or bone problems.

Characteristics of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

These babies may have a small head at birth. They may have coordination problems later in life, memory problems, academic and behavioral problems at school, and shorter-than-average height. Sleep and sucking problems may occur during infancy as well. The cognitive and behavioral disorders continue through the child’s lifetime. Some of these pregnancies also result in miscarriage or stillbirth.

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it crosses the placenta, and the baby then consumes it as well. The fetus is still in various developmental stages, and alcohol is particularly detrimental during these phases. Since many pregnancies are not planned, it is important that sexually active women who do not use birth control avoid the intake of alcohol.

In other words, she may not know for several weeks that she has become pregnant, and the consumption of alcohol in the early weeks of gestation is very risky for the fetus and the pregnancy in general. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are 100 percent preventable if the mother never drinks alcohol while she is pregnant. Neither the mother nor the father is capable of transmission of these disorders to the child through heredity or genetics.

If the mother discovers that she is pregnant and has consumed alcohol in recent days or weeks, she should stop drinking immediately. She should seek professional help if she cannot stop the habit. With regular prenatal care, it is possible that the baby will not have fetal alcohol syndrome or any other abnormalities.

Childhood Management

There is no cure for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, but early intervention treatment services will significantly improve the child’s development. Moreover, a warm and caring household will enhance the growth and development of the child. Various psychotropic medications such as antidepressants, stimulants, antianxiety agents, and major tranquilizers will help the child adjust to his or her situation.

Health care professionals, especially primary care physicians, should inquire about the use of alcohol with all of their patients, and this is particularly true for women of childbearing age.