Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – Its Effects

Drinking during pregnancy can cause foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). The placenta is a part of the body that forms during pregnancy to transfer nutrients to the growing foetus and to remove waste from the foetus. Usually, it stops anything bad getting to the foetus, like viruses and bacteria, but it cannot stop alcohol.

Alcohol is poisonous. We use it to kill bacteria and viruses in things like sterile wipes. Unfortunately, it has a similar effect inside the body. It reacts with our brain cells and can kill them.

An adult body is quite good at processing alcohol. It degrades it in the liver and the body usually recovers very well from large quantities of alcohol. Not so a foetus. A baby’s body cannot process alcohol as well as an adult’s, so the damage from alcohol does not get reduced as much.

The effects of alcohol on a growing foetus

Alcohol damages the brain and spinal cells of a foetus. Other areas of the body can be affected too, leading to disrupted development that can lead to lifelong problems.

FAS is the most severe form of foetal alcohol syndrome, there is also partial FAS, alcohol related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) and alcohol related birth defects (ARBD). They are all foetal alcohol syndromes.

In many cases, consuming alcohol causes a miscarriage.

Those babies that do survive the toxic alcohol have a high chance of developing the following symptoms.

Symptoms of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

  • A smaller than average head
  • Stunted growth
  • Lower birth weight
  • Smaller adult height
  • Facial features like a thin upper lip, smaller eyes, a smooth area between the upper lip and bottom of the nose
  • Cerebral palsy (difficulty coordinating movements)
  • Learning disabilities including impaired memory, poorer social skills, delayed or impaired speech, poor maths skills, and difficulty with timekeeping
  • A higher risk of autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Malformed organs like the heart, liver, or kidneys
  • Poor vision and/or hearing

Can these symptoms be cured?

Not currently. The effects of FAS are lifelong and can be extremely debilitating. The facial characteristics can become less severe over time, and cerebral palsy can sometimes be improved with therapy. However, the mental and physical deficits are going to last that person’s lifetime: they are irreversible.

The consequences of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome

FAS causes many problems for the individual and can have severe effects on those around them. Behavioural problems are common for people with FAS and result in a higher chance of being excluded from school, not achieving average grades, being socially isolated, and struggling with social interactions.

Unfortunately, as people with FAS mature, they are much more likely than average to develop mental health problems. Many (roughly 80 per cent) find living independently as adults difficult, and many jobs are unsuitable for them (again, about 80 percent cannot find work). Processing information is more difficult, as is differentiating between fantasy and reality.

FAS victims have a much higher rate of incarceration than average, and commit a disproportionate amount of crime. About 60 percent of FAS victims will be charged or convicted of a crime. Poor impulse control and anger management skills are common, leading in some to destructive and harmful behaviour.

About half of individuals with FAS demonstrate inappropriate sexual behaviour, including touching, unwanted advances, and dangerous promiscuity.

Roughly 50 per cent of FAS victims over the age of 12 will be incarcerated or confined in their lives, either through being sentenced to imprisonment; or committed for substance abuse or psychiatric care.

With speech and language deficits, children and adults with FAS can find communication very difficult. Often, in common with autism, they find understanding common modes of communication like metaphor and sarcasm hard. Combined with poor motor skills, impaired memory (both short and long term), and poor social skills, people with FAS have to overcome a lot to be happy, productive members of society.

Reducing the effects and harm of FAS

Early diagnosis of FAS is crucial to them getting the help they need. Although the effects on the brain and organs are irreversible, there is a lot that can be done to help prevent the worst effects. Children with FAS are more likely to have been abused or neglected, and those that have not experienced violence are less likely to have severe issues later on in life. Physical and psychological therapy can help a lot. A stable and loving home is one of the biggest factors in helping FAS victims live the best lives they can.

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – diagnosis

Only a doctor can diagnose FAS. If you are concerned your child might have FAS, please talk to your doctor about it. The earlier the intervention, the more effective it is going to be. Any of the above symptoms should be concerning, so even if it is not FAS, they can still get help.

Is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome common?

About 2 to 5 per cent of children born in Western Europe are thought to have FAS. It is one of the leading causes of disability. About 20 per cent of pregnant women are thought to drink at some point during their pregnancy.

What is the safe limit of alcohol while pregnant?

There is no safe limit, any alcohol consumed during pregnancy will adversely affect the foetus and its chances of survival. Miscarriages are dangerous to the mother, so drinking during pregnancy also affects her health. FAS is completely avoidable. Not drinking during pregnancy eliminates the likelihood of FAS.

Getting help for alcohol addiction

Giving up alcohol is difficult but if you have become pregnant while still addicted to alcohol, there is a lot of support available here in the UK. Although there is no safe limit for alcohol during pregnancy, the less you drink, the lower the chances are of your baby developing FAS. Talk to your GP, midwife, or pharmacist about getting help.

The Drinkline confidential helpline number is 0300 123 1110. It is free and offers impartial advice.