What is fetal alcohol syndrome?
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a group of mental, physical and developmental defects in babies which occurs if the mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy. There is no safe limit of alcohol intake during pregnancy as any amount of alcohol may lead to defect in the growing baby. Therefore alcohol use in pregnant women should be avoided altogether. The symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome varies from one baby to another but when present the defects are irreversible. Common symptoms are related to physical defects, learning difficulty, visual defect, mental retardation and behavioral problems. Fetal alcohol syndrome is one of the leading causes of mental defects in babies in Western countries.
Symptoms in Babies
Fetal alcohol syndrome presents with different symptoms affecting different organs. It is a preventable condition that can be avoided by refraining from alcoholic drinks during pregnancy. Common presenting symptoms in babies include :
- Characteristic facial features like small eyes, thin upper lip, upward-turned nose and the skin between the nose and upper lip is smooth.
- Deformed joints, limbs and fingers leading to restricted and painful movements.
- Slow growth before birth leading to low birth weight. After birth the baby suffers from stunted growth.
- Visual abnormalities like intolerance to light, poor vision along with hearing defects.
- Head is disproportionately small (microcephaly).
- Delayed and stunted mental development, poor co-ordination and learning impairment.
- Behavioral problems like short attention span, hyperactivity, emotional outbursts, nervousness and anxiety.
- Heart defects like defective septum development that separates the heart chamber leading to ventricular and atrial septal defects.
- Kidneys defects such as horseshoe, aplastic or hypoplastic kidneys.
Occasionally there are other defects like excessive drooping of the eye lids (ptosis), cleft lip and cleft palate, short neck and abnormally enlarged brain leading to hydrocephalus. All these conditions, and other abnormalities that may arise with fetal alcohol syndrome, may present with various symptoms.
How alcohol affects the fetus
Alcohol can easily cross the placental barrier and reach the fetal circulation through the maternal blood stream. Therefore if a pregnant women drinks alcohol, the concentration of alcohol in fetal blood also rises. The growing fetus metabolizes alcohol very slowly as the metabolizing enzymes are not yet fully functional. This leads to raised alcohol level in the fetal circulation for a prolonged period. Alcohol also compromises oxygen delivery to various organs leading to growth defects especially of the brain. With drinking alcohol frequently during pregnancy, the growth and development of the heart, kidney and facial structures becomes defective leading to the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome.
There is no conclusive evidence regarding the amount of alcohol that is safe to use in pregnancy. However, it has been conclusively established that exposure to alcohol during pregnancy leads to an increased risk of fetal alcohol syndrome. Often during the early stage of pregnancy, some pregnant women are unaware of the pregnancy and drinks alcohol. This unintentionally increases the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome in the child. It is therefore advisable that any women who is planning to fall pregnant must avoid alcohol.
Treatment for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
There is no specific treatment or cure for fetal alcohol syndrome as the defects are irreversible. Learning and other behavioral problems can be addressed by special education services and counseling. There are different support groups which helps in rehabilitation of the children suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. However, the child is adversely affected throughout life in comparison to children who are not afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome. It is therefore imperative that pregnant women avoid alcohol altogether.