If a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, this has an effect on the baby. Fetal alcohol syndrome refers to a number of physical and mental defects found in babies whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. It is the leading known preventable cause of birth defects in USA. The common symptoms include typical facial features and abnormalities of internal organs and behavioral patterns which persist throughout life. There is no known cure, though each individual condition is treated accordingly.

Alcoholic substances like beer, wine or liquor can easily cross the placental barrier and it leaves significant impact on the fetus. This can happen even when the mother drinks little alcohol. In Europe and USA, the incidence of fetal alcohol syndrome varies from 0.2 to 2 in every 1000 live births. This is the leading cause of mental retardation in infants.

The ill effects of alcohol during pregnancy was known during the ancient times, but it was in 1899 that Dr. William Sullivan conducted a study in Liverpool where he noted that 120 alcoholic female prisoners had a higher incidence of stillbirths as compared to their sober female relatives. Finally, in 1973, Dr. Kenneth Lyons Jones and Dr. David Weyhe Smith identified and named the fetal alcohol syndrome.

Causes of fetal alcohol syndrome

Consumption of alcohol by the mother during pregnancy is the cause behind the occurrence of fetal alcohol syndrome or FAS. Alcohol in any form can easily cross the placental barrier. But the fetus metabolizes the alcohol at a much slower rate. As a result, even a small amount of alcohol drink by you can result in quite high concentration of alcohol in the blood of your baby. This alcohol then interferes with the delivery of oxygen to the baby and affects the development of bones and tissues and organs like the brain. This is why mental retardation is commonly associated with fetal alcohol syndrome.

So, how much alcohol can harm your baby? No safe threshold has yet been established and different results have been obtained from a number of studies. In a study by Guerri et al in 1999 involving 400000 American women, it was concluded that if 15 or more drinks were consumed in a week, it would lead to the development of FAS. This same study also said that women who consumed 180 ml or more of pure alcohol per day had a 30% to 33% chance of giving birth to a baby with FAS. Another study by Polygenis in 1998 involving 130000 pregnancies concluded that having two to 14 drinks per weeks during pregnancy did not increase the risk of FAS. However, several subsequent studies have shown that though these children may not suffer from FAS, they performed significantly poorly in school compared to those children whose mothers did not drink at all during pregnancy.

Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

The common symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome range from typical facial features and damage to the central nervous system, leading to mental retardation. The common symptoms are as follows:

  • The baby experiences poor growth both in the uterus and after birth. There is poor development of bones and tissues.
  • Developmental problems are noticed in major areas like speech, social skills and movement.
  • Babies with FAS develop certain typical facial features. They become more pronounced as the baby grows up. These are as follows:
    • Head circumference is small
    • Flat upper jaw. The groove between the upper lip and the nose is flat.
    • Smooth and thin upper lip
    • Narrow and small eye openings, often with large epicanthal folds.
    • Short upturned nose
  • Low birth weight and failure to thrive is noticed.
  • Mental development is slow. Poor coordination in motor skills is noticed.
  • The central nervous system is often damaged during FAS. One reason is that the brain is one of the earliest organs to develop – during the first trimester. Many women are simply not aware that they are pregnant and may consume alcohol during this time. The result may vary from learning and behavioral problems to epilepsy. Poor comprehension, underdeveloped skills of problem solving, poor communication skills, poor memory, inability to understand concepts like time and money are all the byproducts of the damages to the central nervous system.
  • Heart defects are also detected in infants with FAS.
  • Problems develop with eyes and ears with increasing age.
  • Several behavioral problems have been associated with the fetal alcohol syndrome. Poor attention span, hyperactivity, social withdrawal, stubbornness, impulsiveness, impulsiveness abs anxiety are often noticed in children with FAS.
  • Abnormalities in the development of the heart are also commonly noticed in fetal alcohol syndrome. Heart murmur is detected around one year of age.
  • Abnormalities are also noticed in bone development, particularly in joints and in the fingers.
  • Kidneys may be formed differently or may not function well.
  • Apart from these, a few more symptoms are noticed in some cases, especially when the mother indulges in severe alcohol abuse. These include cleft lip, cleft palate, webbed neck, webbed fingers etc.

How to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome?

The surest way to prevent FAS is that the mother not drinks any alcohol during pregnancy. Here are a few steps suggested:

  • Women who are planning to get pregnant should refrain from drinking alcohol. If they had been heavy drinkers before, it is best to wait a month to flush the alcohol completely from the system before trying for a baby.
  • While different studies suggest differently. No safe level of alcohol has yet been established. The fact is everybody reacts differently to alcohol. A glass may not harm another pregnant woman, but it may have severe consequences for you.
  • If you are an alcoholic or bordering on it, you must get help to recover from this before you try for a baby.
  • A support person may prove invaluable when you are trying to go completely alcohol free.
  • If you refrain from chronic alcohol use during pregnancy but indulge in binge drinking, you will end up creating severe developmental complications for your child.
  • Living in an abusive environment increases the risk of alcohol abuse by the mother. Adequate social intervention and awareness can help to reduce this problem.

Different types of treatments for fetal alcohol syndrome

Once you have drunk alcohol during pregnancy and it has affected your bay, there is no known way to reverse the effects. So, there is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome. Instead, symptomatic treatments are undertaken for the major symptoms of the condition. For example, heart murmur may be treated in the conventional way. Cleft lip or palate is dealt with by surgery. Often, psychoactive drugs are prescribed to overcome the behavioral problems of FAS because the condition is sometimes misdiagnosed due to overlapping of symptoms.

Where traditional medical interventions have fallen woefully short of dealing with the fetal alcohol syndrome, a number of alternative and behavioral treatments have been suggested. They can go a long way towards helping the FAS affected child overcome the developmental problems. Learning therapies can be used by parents and experts to help in the development of the child.

Similarly, friendship training is another behavioral skill that can go a long way to compensate for the lack of social development or the hindrance to speech. Some parents also try alternative methods like acupressure or homeopathy to overcome poor development of bones, joints, tissues and organs.

According to one study by Streissguth et al (1996), the cost of FAS is $800000 for every child born with the disorder in USA. This is the sum of the medical and social costs. This irreversible disorder can easily be prevented if the mother does not drink any alcohol during pregnancy. Currently, the Health departments of USA, Britain and Australia recommend that a pregnant woman should drink no alcohol at all. If you had drunk any alcohol during your pregnancy, you should openly discuss the issue with your doctor and watch your baby for signs of FAS so that you can get medical intervention as early as possible.