What Do We Know About Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Syndrome?

What Do We Know About Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Syndrome?

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Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is an overarching title for disorders concluded to be a result of pregnant people who drink alcohol during their pregnancy. 

This is often referred to as FASDs or foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, as the condition can be mild or severe, causing physical or mental defects in the baby.  There are several types captured under the title FASD.  The most severe of these is FASD or foetal alcohol syndrome.  A Foetal Alcohol Syndrome course can provide the depth and detail needed to understand this complex condition fully.  Here we give you a brief introduction, answering some of your initial questions.

What is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)?

person pouring wine into a glass

Babies born with FASD may have multiple problems.  The condition could include problems with sight, hearing, attention span, their memory and their ability to learn and communicate.  The severity and the nature of the condition will vary between individuals.  One baby may physically show little sign of FAS, but when they begin to develop and start learning, the defects will become apparent. Doctors assert that the condition is often permanent. Unfortunately, 1 in 13 babies born to mothers who drink alcohol throughout their pregnancy are affected by Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder to some degree.

What are the causes of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a result of the pregnant mother drinking alcohol.  Alcohol can easily pass through the placenta to the developing foetus.  Unlike the mother who will process the alcohol diluted in her system, the foetus receives the alcohol in a concentrated dose.  As the baby in the womb processes this alcohol, it is prevented from getting enough food and air needed for the vital organs that are developing.

Some women may not know that they are pregnant in the first few weeks.  It is possible that FASD can occur at this time.  The risk is most significant in the first three months of pregnancy.

Developmental problems can occur due to alcohol consumption at any point of the pregnancy.  This consequence of drinking explains the advisory to pregnant women that no consumption is the only safe level.  It is possible that an alcoholic drink every-now-and-then can still harm the later life chances of your child.

What symptoms will help doctors come to a diagnosis?

The symptoms of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder are many.  A baby may only have some of these symptoms, and the symptoms may be severe or mild.  It is possible that some of the symptoms can be attributed to other conditions and a medic will use different tests to make sure the symptom is linked to FAS.

FASD may present with physical and mental symptoms.

Physical symptoms

  • A small head, beyond the range of normal
  • Below average height and weight
  • A smooth ridge between the mouth and the nose. You may notice that the eyes are small and wide-set and that the upper lip is abnormally thick.  There may be other abnormalities of facial features.
  • Heart problems
  • Kidney defects/ abnormalities
  • Limb/ finger deformation
  • Hearing and sight problems

Mental symptoms

  • Hyperactivity/ lack of focus, which may only become apparent at school-age
  • Poor coordination
  • Delayed development/ problems with thinking/ speech/ movement/ social skills/ poor judgement
  • General learning disabilities/ intellectual disabilities
  • Mood swings

Remember these symptoms can be a result of other conditions.  The doctors will use these signs to inform tests that will help them come to a professional conclusion about the cause.

How will the doctors move to a diagnosis?

pregnant woman holding teddy bear for child

When you begin to suspect there is a problem with your baby, you should go to see a doctor.  Although the presence of these symptoms may show up at developmental appointments with the midwife and the practice nurse, the earlier the diagnosis, the better.  When speaking to your doctor, you will need to explain that you drank alcohol during pregnancy, helping the doctor to begin the assessment.

The doctor will then examine the baby, looking for the characteristic abnormal facial features, a sign that growth is limited, and seeking confirmation of nervous system problems.  The problems of the nervous system may present as physical symptoms or behavioural symptoms.  The doctor may judge that the child is unusually hyperactive or lacks coordination and focus.  Learning disabilities may be apparent when the child is older, and this would also influence a doctor’s diagnosis.

How does Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder affect intellectual development?

It may be that as a baby there were no physical signs of a problem.  You may recognise that the baby is clumsy or that they take a little time to develop speech and walking.  However, the impact for some will occur when school begins. Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder can prevent some of the higher executive functions, including reasoning, memory and behaviour.

The intellectual deficits are highly variable and will be different for one individual to the next.  It may be that if left these developmental issues will result in a significant challenge for the person when they are expected to cope with society as an adult.  The child with FASD is statistically more likely to be involved with violence and addiction later in life.

What are the treatments for Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is incurable.  However, some treatments and therapies will address the symptoms of FAS.  Early diagnosis will help with early intervention in symptoms and therefore reduce the impact on the life experiences of the child.  More progress can be made the earlier these treatments and therapies begin.

Depending on the severity and type of symptoms, you may need many door and specialist appointments.  It is likely that mental symptoms will be addressed with special education and social service help, especially with young children.  It is possible that a speech therapist could be involved with the child from a toddler, helping them to learn to talk and therefore develop speech at a relatively average rate.

What can you do at home?

woman drinking alcohol at a dinner party

A child with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder may be more sensitive to disruption.  Therefore, a routine is more important than with an average child.  A stable and loving home is the most important contribution of family and family friends.  This will take some patience and understanding.  It is possible that a child with FASD will develop problems with violence.  A consistent application of a routine, with simple rules and rewards for positive behaviour, will be helpful.

How might the doctor help?

Some medications will help manage the symptoms of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.  Remember this is not a treatment but management of the worst of the condition that might be disrupting life to the point that cannot be tolerated.

The medications could include antidepressants to deal with mood problems including sadness and negativity, stimulants as a means of feeding the need in the brain for increased stimulation, neuroleptics for anxiety and aggression or antianxiety drugs.

Counselling may also prove helpful.  Behavioural training may be needed to help children develop friendships, to learn the social skills necessary to interact, and conflict resolution skills.  There may also be some therapies available for the executive function such as self-control, reasoning, and an understanding of cause and effect.

How might wider therapies and interventions help?

When your child gets to school, it may be that they need special educational interventions.  This could be as simple as additional support in the classroom or behaviour interventions designed to meet the needs of the individual.  It may also be possible to introduce specialist therapies in school, such as speech therapy or one-to-one tutoring for a specific subject.

There is also some evidence that alternative treatments have some success.  Massage and reflexology can help to deal with both physical and mental symptoms, particularly mood disorders.  Acupuncture, yoga, diet and exercise will also play a part in a holistic treatment model.

What about the parents?

Dealing with a child with FASD can be challenging.  The parents may feel the pressure and wear and tear of the constant challenges.  This may also be lingering feelings of blame or guilt, which are not helpful in the long term.  Therefore, turning to your doctor for confidential help and support is as essential for the parent as it is for the child.

The best treatment would be prevention.  Therefore, if you are a potential mum with a problem with alcohol, then treating the addiction first would prevent possibilities of a child being born with FAS.

Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
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