Substance Use

National Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Awareness Month

TABLE OF CONTENTSTable of Contents

pregnant woman with hand on belly holding glass of wine

What You Should Know About Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Alcohol use during pregnancy is the leading known preventable cause of birth defects that can range from mild to severe physical abnormalities and a wide array of cognitive, behavioral, and social deficits.  

An estimated 40,000 newborns are affected every year by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), an umbrella term that includes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and other alcohol-related disorders. The use of alcohol can disrupt the development of a fetus at any stage during pregnancy, and that includes even the earliest stages before a person even knows they’re pregnant. 

Since their livers aren’t fully formed, developing babies lack the ability to process alcohol, meaning they absorb all of the alcohol their mother consumes and retain the same blood alcohol level as her. It is vitally important to remember that no amount of alcohol is known to be safe for a developing baby before birth. Even just one glass of wine or one cocktail can be damaging to a young life in the womb. 

In this post, we’ll go over the basics of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and what can be done to prevent them.

What Is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to a range of consequences that collectively make up Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Not all signs and symptoms are present in all children with the disorder. Symptoms can include:

  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARNDpresents as intellectual disabilities or behavioral issues, including difficulty paying attention and controlling impulses.
  • Alcohol-Related Physical Birth Defects (ARBD): People born with this condition often have problems with the heart, kidneys, bones, or hearing — or a mix of all.
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): The most severe end of the spectrum, FAS presents both neurodevelopmental disorder and birth defects, including problems with the central nervous system, learning, memory, growth, attention span, vision, and hearing — or a mix of these issues.
  • Neurobehavioral Disorder Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure (ND-PAE): To be diagnosed with ND-PAE, the mother must have consumed more than “minimal levels of alcohol” while pregnant, which is defined as more than 13 drinks per month or more than two drinks in one sitting. ND-PAE presents problems in three core areas:
    • Thinking and memory, including retaining information learned.
    • Behavioral problems, including severe tantrums and mood issues.
    • Difficulty with day-to-day living, including problems with personal grooming and playing with other kids.

Physical issues among children born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders may include:

  • Abnormal facial features, such as small eye openings, a thin upper lip, or flattened ridges between the nose and upper lip
  • Small head 
  • Low body weight
  • Shorter-than-average height
  • Vision or hearing problems 
  • Defects in the heart, kidneys, or bones
  • Central nervous system disorders 

Cognitive or developmental issues may include:

  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Difficulty with attention or memory
  • Learning difficulties in school
  • Speech and language delays
  • Sleep and sucking problems as a baby
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Antisocial and risk-taking behaviors 
  • Problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones

Nearly 1 in 100 babies have FASD, which is nearly the same rate as autism. FASD is more prevalent than Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, SIDS, and spina bifida combined. 

How Does FASD Occur? 

Alcohol interferes with a fetus’s development, especially the brain and nervous system, by:

  • Killing cells in different parts of the fetus, which leads to abnormal physical development.
  • Interfering with the development of nerve cells and how they travel to form the brain.
  • Constricting blood vessels, which in turn slows blood flood to the baby’s food supply while in utero. When this happens, it causes a shortage of oxygen and nutrients to the baby.
  • Creating toxic byproducts that can concentrate in the fetus’s brain cells, causing damage.

How Are  Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Diagnosed?

It’s challenging to diagnose fetal alcohol spectrum disorders because there is no tool or test that diagnoses these conditions directly. Also, it’s not uncommon for mothers to lie about their alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Doctors will often make FASD diagnoses based on a newborn’s size and specific physical symptoms that develop later in childhood, such as:

  • Abnormal facial features
  • Being born small and staying small throughout childhood
  • Emotional and behavioral issues, including hyperactivity and difficulty maintaining friendships

How To Prevent FASD?

The only way to prevent FASD is for a person to avoid alcohol use during pregnancy. It can take 4 to 6 weeks before a person knows they’re pregnant, during which time a developing fetus could be exposed to alcohol. Therefore, it is also advised that people trying to conceive or not using birth control methods should avoid alcohol.

If a person has already used alcohol during pregnancy, it is never too late to stop. Brain growth occurs throughout pregnancy, so the sooner a pregnant person stops drinking, the safer it will be for the baby. 

If you’re an expectant mother or trying to get pregnant, but you are struggling to stop drinking, help is available. With medical detox programs, family therapy, and inpatient rehab, Zinnia Healing can help. We welcome anyone who needs our help and guidance on the path to healing. Our commitment to our patients and their communities is delivered by best-in-class providers, with consistently better outcomes than the national average. Contact us today at (855) 430-9439 to learn more.

How Can FASD Be Treated?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders last a lifetime. While there is no cure or specific treatment for FASDs, early intervention services can help reduce some of the effects and may prevent secondary disabilities. Intervention services can include:

  • Early intervention to help with learning and social skills
  • Medical care for health problems, such as heart abnormalities or vision problems
  • Medications to help with symptoms
  • Vocational and life skills training
  • Counseling to benefit the parents and family members working with a child’s behavioral problems
  • A team that may include a speech therapist, physical and occupational therapists, special education teacher, and a psychologist
  • Addressing alcohol and other substance use problems 

Treating a mother’s alcohol use problem can lead to better parenting and prevent future pregnancies from being affected by FASD. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use, seek out help. A wide range of resources is available to you! 

If you’ve given birth to a child with FASD, ask about counseling for substance use disorder that can help you overcome your misuse of alcohol or other substances. 

What Can You Do?

Prevention begins with education. You can help prevent FASD by leading those who ask about alcohol and pregnancy in the right direction. 

Raising public awareness about the risks of prenatal alcohol exposure on a developing child is paramount. At Zinnia Healing, we believe education is key in influencing the choices made by people who might become pregnant. 

By helping people living with alcohol dependency, the team at Zinnia Healing can provide access to therapeutic services that could prevent pregnancies – both now and in the future – from being affected by alcohol. Contact us today at (855) 430-9439 to learn more.