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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team

Updated on

What are fetal alcohol spectrum disorders?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a disorder in people whose mothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy. Symptoms may include growth problems, behavioral problems, and learning difficulties. Due to broad range of symptoms and their severity, diagnosis is sometimes difficult. The condition is most commonly detected in children during kindergarten or primary school, when learning difficulties become apparent. Although there is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome, early diagnosis and intensive support can ease some symptoms. Without diagnosis or sufficient support, people with this condition are more likely to suffer social and health disadvantages.


Fetal alcohol syndrome means that alcohol has caused problems for the unborn baby (the fetus) during its development. Alcohol especially affects the development of the brain, heart, eyes and kidneys. Women who have a dependency on alcohol around the time of their pregnancy are more likely to have a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. This condition can be difficult to diagnose, so, although it is most commonly diagnosed in childhood, it can also be first diagnosed later in life.


The symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome can be different from person to person, depending on how much alcohol the mother drank and the stage in the pregnancy that this occurred. Typical signs of fetal alcohol syndrome in a newborn baby include being small at birth and certain facial characteristics, such as wide-set eyes, flattening of the groove between the nose and mouth, and a thin upper lip. As the child gets older, other problems may become obvious, such as learning difficulties, attention difficulties (many children have attention deficit disorder), hearing or vision problems, and behavioral problems, such as impulsiveness and hyperactivity.


The diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome is often complicated because the signs and symptoms can be difficult to recognize. The diagnosis is made by an experienced pediatrician based on the appearance and symptoms of a child whose mother drank alcohol while pregnant. The main features needed to diagnose this condition are: growth problems, the characteristic facial features (a thin upper lip, smoothed groove between nose and mouth, wide-set eyes) and signs or symptoms of developmental brain problems (learning difficulties, low IQ) in a mother who drank alcohol while pregnant.


There is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome disorders. Treatment requires managing the symptoms, and providing support for the complications, including extra support at school, and early recognition and management of attention and behavior issues. Family counseling may also be helpful.


The most important measure to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome is not drinking alcohol when pregnant.

Other names for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

  • Foetal alcohol syndrome

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