Fetal alcohol syndrome: Drinking during pregnancy can cause lifelong disabilities

Fetal alcohol syndrome: Drinking during pregnancy can cause lifelong disabilities

Maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy is not only bad for the mother, but it can have many lifelong repercussions on the baby as well. Fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder was first introduced in France in 1968 and was later introduced in the United States in 1972. Prenatal exposure to alcohol is an international health concern since it is the most common cause for intellectual disability. The incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome in the United States is estimated to be one to two cases per 1,000 live births.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is associated with persistent physical and neurological developmental disabilities. The diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome includes clinical findings in the following three areas:

  • characteristic facial anomalies
  • growth retardation
  • central nervous system involvement such as cognitive delay, poor social development and learning disabilities

This syndrome is a considered a spectrum disorder, meaning that physical and cognitive symptoms will vary between each patient. For example, one child may not have severe facial anomalies but may have severe learning disabilities or growth delay, and vice versa. Pervasive developmental disorder, which includes autism and Asperger’s syndrome, is also considered a spectrum disorder because symptoms range from mild, intermediate to severe.

Because sufficient data does not exist to determine a threshold dose, below which no effects on cognitive performance or behavior manifest, it is recommended that women completely abstain from alcohol consumption throughout pregnancy. No specific treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome exists, and that is why this is a lifelong disorder. However, there are specific programs and interventions that can help children with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Clinical symptoms and diagnosis

Fetal alcohol syndrome is initially based on a clinical diagnosis and confirmed using genetic analysis by performing chromosomal studies and karyotyping. Maternal history of alcohol use during pregnancy is a key diagnostic factor, but this is not required for the diagnosis since many women are hesitant to admit drinking during pregnancy.

The most common physical features associated with fetal alcohol syndrome are abnormal facial features such as a thin smooth upper lip, a smooth philtrum, midface hypoplasia, microphthalmia and short palpebral fissures.

Growth retardation is also one of the diagnostic categories in fetal alcohol syndrome. This category includes: small for gestational age, which is defined as less than the tenth percentile for weight or length and postnatal growth deficiency.

Central nervous system complications associated with fetal alcohol syndrome include cognitive impairment disorders such as intellectual disability, learning disabilities, social impairments, language delays, depression, anxiety and emotional instability. This syndrome is often mistaken for pervasive developmental disorders and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. In fact, many people with fetal alcohol syndrome are more likely to be incarcerated, abuse drugs and alcohol, have problems with employment, have an inability to be financial independent and portray inappropriate sexual behavior. It is not uncommon for children with fetal alcohol disorder to show aggression and defiance.

Treatment and therapy approaches

Because there is no cure and no single treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome, treatment involves coordination of a multi-disciplinary team consisting of many specialists and multiple community services. Social services are needed to ensure a safe home environment and provide parental education. Educational support often is the primary focus and many different types of educational programs are available. Math Interactive Learning Experience, Good Buddies, Families Moving Forward and Language to Literacy Program are all community and academic intervention programs that are specifically geared toward children with fetal alcohol syndrome. All of these programs are endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Early identification of fetal alcohol syndrome and subsequent early intervention treatment services result in significantly improved outcomes. A diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome meets the “presumptive diagnosis” requirements of Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, allowing children younger than 3 years to receive services even if their test results fall in the normal range.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a lifelong, devastating medical condition that can cause physical, mental and behavioral disabilities, but can easily be prevented with the proper education. Educating women about the effects of drugs and alcohol consumption during pregnancy is the only preventive treatment. Drinking alcohol affects fetal development in every trimester during pregnancy.

If you or someone you know is planning on becoming pregnant, seek out education and prevention tools on fetal alcohol syndrome. The Dual Diagnosis Helpline is available to provide help for those who struggle with an addiction and a co-occurring mental health disorder. Within the United States, the number of facilities providing high-quality dual diagnosis treatment for both conditions simultaneously is limited. That is why we are here for you and your loved ones to help you get the help you deserve. If you’re seeking more information about dual diagnosis or require immediate treatment, you can always call 855-981-6047.