How Can You Know If Your Child Has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the severe end of a spectrum of effects that can occur when a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy. The characteristics of FAS include growth retardation, facial abnormalities, and central nervous system dysfunction. The extreme case of alcohol-related effects is the death of the fetus and miscarriage.

If a pregnant woman drinks alcohol but her child does not have the full symptoms of FAS, it is possible that her child may be born with alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders (ARND). Children with ARND do not have full FAS but may demonstrate learning and behavioral problems caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. Children with alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD) can have problems with their heart, kidneys, bones, or hearing.

The effects of FAS are not curable, but if it is recognized, therapy can begin to reduce the symptoms and the impact on the child's life.

Pregnant woman holding a bottle of beer
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Signs and Symptoms

If you suspect that a newborn may have been exposed to excessive amounts of alcohol during the mother's pregnancy, probably the quickest way to confirm whether the child needs to begin treatment for FAS is by examining the baby's facial features. If you think a child may have FAS or other alcohol-related effects, contact a doctor. Children with FAS or ARND may have the following characteristics or exhibit the following behaviors:

Head and Facial Abnormalities

  • Small head
  • Small upper jaw
  • Thin upper lip
  • Smooth upper lip, lacking the ridge of the philtrum that is usually seen between the nose and the upper lip.
  • Short nose
  • Flat midface
  • Low nasal bridge
  • Epicanthal folds, in which there is extra skin from the upper eyelid covering the corner of the inner eye

Other Physical Signs

  • Small for gestational age or small in stature in relation to peers. Can be low in body weight as well as shorter than average height.
  • Vision or hearing impairments

Behavioral and Intellectual Signs

  • Sleep and sucking disturbances in infancy
  • Poor coordination
  • Hyperactive behavior and attention difficulties
  • Poor memory
  • Learning disabilities, difficulty in school, especially with math
  • Developmental disabilities such as speech and language delays
  • Intellectual disability or low IQ
  • Problems with daily living
  • Poor reasoning and judgment skills

There are many other facial and other physical abnormalities that children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders may exhibit, including growth deficiencies, skeletal deformities, organ deformities, and central nervous system handicaps.

Problems Later in Life

In addition, children with fetal alcohol syndrome can develop secondary conditions related to FAS. These are conditions that they were not born with but develop later in life.

A Word From Verywell

Because there is no cure for FAS, it is crucial that women who are pregnant or who might become pregnant do not drink alcohol. No amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. While there is no cure for FAS, therapy and early intervention services can help a child reach his full potential.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Johnson S, Moyer CL, Klug MG, Burd L. Comparison of Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Associated with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Diagnostic Criteria. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2018;39(2):163-167. doi:10.1097/DBP.0000000000000523

  3. Murawski NJ, Moore EM, Thomas JD, Riley EP. Advances in Diagnosis and Treatment of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: From Animal Models to Human StudiesAlcohol Res. 2015;37(1):97–108.

  4. Fetal alcohol syndromePaediatr Child Health. 2002;7(3):161–195. doi:10.1093/pch/7.3.161

  5. Jacobson JL, Jacobson SW. Effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on child development. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [internet]. 2003.

  6. Petrenko CL, Tahir N, Mahoney EC, Chin NP. Prevention of secondary conditions in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: identification of systems-level barriersMatern Child Health J. 2014;18(6):1496–1505. doi:10.1007/s10995-013-1390-y

Additional Reading

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.