Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition which occurs when women drink alcohol in their pregnancy. It covers a range of symptoms and affects each baby differently. Examples include facial changes and learning disabilities, trouble with coordination or attention and hyperactivity. It can also affect the kidneys, bones, and the heart, and cause growth problems.
Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is used interchangeably, but more specifically describes certain collections of symptoms related to damage by alcohol during pregnancy, of which FAS is the most severe end of the spectrum.
Symptoms may be subtle and there may be no physical signs, but it’s thought to be underdiagnosed, and numbers have risen in recent years along with alcohol abuse.
The cause is obvious, it is due to alcohol being consumed, in excess, in pregnancy. Nobody knows what excess exactly is, so it is safest to avoid drinking while pregnant.
Alcohol during pregnancy affects the unborn baby because the liver is underdeveloped and therefore cannot break it down, as it can for adults. The developing brain is particular sensitive to the effect of alcohol.
Along with FAS, high alcohol levels lead to many complications of the brain and body such as birth defects, and it risks stillbirth and early labour.
A baby with FAS looks quite characteristic in that they have a small head and brain, small eyes, a short nose with a low nasal bridge and a thin upper lip with an indistinct ridge between the upper lip and the nose. It can also cause deformities of the joints and hands, and affect eyesight and hearing.
The baby can grow up with developmental delays, learning difficulties and difficulty regulating emotions, with memory, co-ordination and reasoning. It can affect children in a variety of ways which may make it hard for them to socialise, make friends and thrive at school.
It is a clinical diagnosis, which means that there are no special tests or investigations that confirm it but a doctor will be able to examine their features and their behaviour and correlate it with their mother’s account of drinking during pregnancy.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for FAS but the earlier it is diagnosed, the earlier it can be managed, and the better the outcome for the child.
Support and therapy for both the parents and child in how to manage difficulties in behaviour or ability are important.
Medications can help manage the symptoms. FAS presents similarly to ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and therefore stimulants can be one option. Other neurological medications can be used to treat mood symptoms, behavioural difficulties and anxiety. Complementary therapies and relaxation techniques are often deployed to help with behavioural symptoms.
Mothers may require help if they are still abusing alcohol, therefore a drug and alcohol service is the right place for support and guidance.
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