Foetal Alcohol Syndrome


Foetal alcohol syndrome or foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) as it is now known, is a condition that arises when a woman drinks during pregnancy.  If a woman drinks during her pregnancy, there is a potential risk to the baby both mentally and physically.  

It is a completely avoidable condition, but doctors and scientists are unsure how much alcohol is safe during pregnancy, so not drinking at all is recommended.  But drinking large amounts of alcohol and binge drinking are more harmful than smaller amounts of alcohol. Therefore doctors currently consider there to be no “safe” level of drinking during pregnancy.

When a woman is pregnant, the baby receives nourishment from the mother’s bloodstream.  If the mother drinks, then the alcohol can also pass through her bloodstream, into the placenta and into the baby’s blood. The baby’s liver is one of the last organs that develops, so it doesn’t develop fully until the later stages of pregnancy. Because of this, the baby is not able to process the alcohol as well as the mother can.  

Alcohol is most harmful in the first three months of pregnancy, when it can cause birth abnormalities, premature labour, stillbirth and miscarriage. But it can also harm the baby throughout the pregnancy. It can have a number of effects upon the baby:

  1. It can damage the cells in the baby’s body that are responsible for growth. This means that the baby may have a smaller body size, and poor growth. The baby will also sometimes have deformed limbs. The child can also have a small jaw and head. There are also distinctive facial features, such as thin upper lip, small eyes that are set wide apart and a smooth philtrum. This is the ridge that runs from the top lip to the nose.
  2. The child may have problems with the heart, kidneys, liver and other organs.
  3. Sometimes the child may develop epilepsy.
  4. They may also have problems with sight and hearing.
  5. It can damage the connection between the nerves in the brain, which can cause delays in development.
  6. This makes the child more prone to learning disabilities. For example, the child may have problems with social skills, memory, thinking and speech.
  7. They can have behavioural problems. For example, they may develop ADHD or have behaviour similar to a child with autism. They can also have difficulties sleeping.
  8. They can be more prone to cerebral palsy, which is a problem in the brain area that is responsible for controlling movement and coordination.
  9. It can affect the baby’s development, particularly the brain and spinal cord.
  10. The baby is also more prone to other illnesses due to a weakened immune system.

The severity of the symptoms will vary. In some they will be mild, whilst in other children they can be quite severe. The child will need early diagnosis and support to deal with issues later in their life. Because of the problems associated with their condition, there can be a risk that they may:

  •     Misuse alcohol and drugs.
  •     Develop mental health problems.
  •     Be expelled from school.

They may also find it hard to get a job and live independently as an adult. Unfortunately, the brain damage is irreversible, so it is important that the child receives early assessment and support.