Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Clinical Psychologist, BSc, MSc  Costas Demetriou

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a condition that can occur in a fetus whose mother consumes alcohol during pregnancy.  FAS includes psychological as well as physical developmental issues. A pregnant woman who is consuming any amount of alcohol can be at risk of having a child with FAS.

Symptoms and Signs

A baby with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome may have the following symptoms:

  • Small head,
  • Smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose, small and wide-set eyes, a very thin upper lip, or other abnormal facial features,
  • Below average height and weight,
  • Hyperactivity,
  • Lack of focus,
  • Poor coordination,
  • Delayed development and problems in thinking, speech, movement, and social skills,
  • Poor judgment,
  • Problems seeing or hearing,
  • Learning disabilities,
  • Intellectual disability,
  • Heart problems,
  • Kidney defects and abnormalities,
  • Deformed limbs or fingers and
  • Mood swings.

To what extent is alcohol problematic?

It is clear that alcohol abuse during pregnancy is dangerous, but what about occasional consumption? What amount of alcohol is considered to be “a lot” during pregnancy?

There is no indication of how much alcohol causes genetic abnormalities. Factors such as the woman’s age, the time of consumption, the amount of alcohol she consumes, and whether she consumes alcohol without having eaten are some of the factors that may affect the development of FAS. Due to the fact that alcohol can easily penetrate the placenta, the developing fetal system has to absorb the alcohol, without being capable of detoxicating the ethanol.

Mothers who consume alcohol during the first trimester of their pregnancy are at high risk of giving birth to children with the most serious form of FAS because the brain develops during this critical period. The developing fetal nervous system appears particularly sensitive to alcohol toxicity, hindering normal brain development. Many women, however, may not be aware that they are pregnant during the early months of their pregnancy.

Women who abstain from alcohol at the beginning of their pregnancy may think that alcohol consumption is not harmful in later trimesters. However, some of the most complex stages of brain development occur in the second and third trimesters, a period where the nervous system can be greatly influenced by alcohol. Even moderate or occasional alcohol consumption can seriously damage the growth and development of the fetus’ nervous system.

What are the treatments for fetal alcohol syndrome?

While Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is not curable, there are treatments for some of the symptoms. An early diagnosis can ensure a better symptom management and prognosis. Depending on the symptoms a child exhibits, they may need consultations from a doctor or a mental health professional. Special education and social services can also aid young children and their families.

Prevention is the solution

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is a disorder that cannot be cured. If there are organic effects on the child’s heart or kidneys, then surgery and / or medication may be needed to deal with the resulting impairments. Therefore, preventing alcohol consumption during pregnancy is essential in ensuring the health of the developing fetus.


British Medical Association (2007) Fetal Alcohol Spectrum disorders: A guide for health professionals. British Medical Association, London.