Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Babies and birth defects

Key Points

Don’t drink alcohol during pregnancy. If you don’t drink, your baby can’t be born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (also called FASDs).

Babies with FASDs may have problems with growth and development and problems with learning, behavior and communicating.

Treatment for FASDs depends on your child’s condition.

What causes FASDs?

FASDs are always caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy. So to prevent FASDs, don’t drink alcohol when you’re pregnant.

Drinking alcohol at any time during pregnancy can harm your baby. If you drink any amount of alcohol during pregnancy, your baby may be born with FASDs. FASDs may cause problems for your baby at birth and later in life. Up to 1 in 20 children (about 5 percent) in the United States may have FASDs.

Alcohol passes from your bloodstream through the placenta to your baby. The placenta grows in your uterus (womb) and supplies your baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord.

No amount of alcohol has been proven safe at any time during pregnancy. But binge drinking during pregnancy increases your chances of having a baby with FASDs. Binge drinking is when you drink four or more drinks in 2 to 3 hours.

If you need help to stop drinking alcohol during pregnancy, talk to your health care provider or contact:

How can FASDs affect your baby’s health?

Babies with FASDs are more likely than other babies to have intellectual and developmental disabilities. These are problems with how the brain works that can cause your child to have trouble or delays in physical development, learning, communicating, taking care of himself or getting along with others. You don’t know if your baby has these kinds of problems when he’s born, but they may affect him later in life.

There are four main types of FASDs. All may cause your baby to have intellectual and developmental disabilities:

Fetal alcohol syndrome (also called FAS). Babies with FAS may have: 

  • Distinct facial features. These include small eyes and a thin upper lip. Also, instead of a ridge or groove between the nose and upper lip, the skin there may be smooth.  
  • Growth problems during pregnancy, after birth or both. Your baby may be smaller in size and may weigh less than a baby of the same age. Babies with FAS usually don’t catch up on growth as they get older.
  • Vision problems, hearing problems or problems with the central nervous system (also called CNS). The CNS is made up of the brain, spinal cord and nerves. Your baby’s CNS helps him move, think and feel.
  • Later in life, problems in school and getting along with others. Children with FAS may have intellectual and developmental disabilities, including learning problems, poor memory, trouble paying attention and communication and behavior problems

Partial fetal alcohol syndrome (also called pFAS). 

  • A baby with pFAS has some but not all of the characteristics of FAS.   

Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (also called ARND). Babies with ARND have problems with how their brain and nervous system develop and work. Children with ARND may have intellectual and developmental disabilities, including:

  • Hyperactive behavior. Hyperactive children need to move around a lot. They may have having trouble sitting still at school.
  • Poor judgement. This means they don’t make good decisions or choices.
  • Problems with memory, paying attention or learning (like having problems with math)
  • Speech problems
  • Problems with social skills (getting along with others)

Alcohol-related birth defects (also called ARBD). Birth defects are health conditions that are present at birth. Birth defects change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. They can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops, or in how the body works. Babies with ARBDs may have birth defects that affect their:

  • Bones
  • Ears. Your baby may have hearing problems.
  • Eyes. Your baby may have vision problems.
  • Heart. Your baby may be born with a congenital heart defect, like a hole in the heart called atrial septal defect (also called ASD) or ventricular septal defect (also called VSD), depending on where the hole is. Congenital means your baby is born with the heart defect.
  • Kidneys.

How do you know if your baby has an FASD?

There’s no test to check for FASDs. If your baby’s health care provider thinks your baby may have an FASD, she may:

  • Give your baby a physical exam to look for facial features caused by FASDs and to check your baby’s length and weight. Babies with FASDs may have growth problems.
  • Use tests, like magnetic resonance imaging (also called MRI), to check your baby’s brain. An MRI is a test that makes a detailed picture of the inside of the body, like of your baby’s brain. The test is painless and safe for your baby.

How are FASDs treated?

There is no cure for FASDs. If your baby has an FASD, her provider may want your baby to see other providers and specialists, like:

  • A developmental pediatrician. This is a doctor who has special training in child development and taking care of children with special needs.
  • A child psychologist. This is a mental health professional who has special training to take care of children with emotional or mental health problems.
  • Clinical geneticist. This is a doctor who helps find out the causes of birth defects and other genetic conditions.

If your child has an FASD, talk to her provider about kinds of treatments she may need, including:

  • Early intervention services. Getting these services as soon as possible can help improve your baby’s development. The services can help children from birth through 3 years old learn important skills, like how to talk, walk and interact with others. To find out about early intervention services in your state, visit the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.  
  • Medicines to help manage behavior problems, mood problems and anxiety (feeling worried or afraid)
  • Behavior and education therapy that can help your child with thinking skills, including help with memory, planning and solving problems. Some children with FASDs may need special help with math. This kind of therapy also can help your child develop self-control and social skills to help her learn how to make friends and get along with others.
  • Training to help with hearing and speech
  • Alternative treatments that may help your child relax and reduce stress. These may include relaxation therapy, meditation, exercise and art therapy (like drawing, painting or playing an instrument). These treatments may help reduce your child’s stress, improve concentration and help develop social skills.

As a parent of a child with an FASD, you can get special training to help you learn about your child’s condition and help her learn skills she needs for everyday life. You can do parent training in groups or with just your family. Talk to your child’s provider about where to find a provider or classes for parents of children with an FASD. 

Last reviewed: April, 2016

See also: Alcohol during pregnancy