What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?


Fetal alcohol syndrome is a blanket term used to classify a spectrum of birth defects that result from a woman's use of alcohol during her pregnancy.  As many of these disabilities can be serious in nature, the CDC has recently issued a statement that women of childbearing age should avoid alcohol unless they're using contraception.  This statement was issued in the hopes of reducing the number of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome.

What kind of disabilities can arise from women using alcohol during pregnancy?

Disabilities, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, include growth retardation and characteristic facial features, such as:

·      Small eyes with drooping upper lids

·      Short, upturned nose

·      Flattened cheeks

·      Small jaw

·      Thin upper lip

·      Flattened philtrum

Use of alcohol during pregnancy can also affect the central nervous system, and cause problems such as:

·      Mental retardation

·      Hyperactivity

·      Delayed development of gross motor skills such as rolling over, sitting up, crawling and walking

·      Delayed development of fine motor skills

·      Impaired language development

·      Memory problems, poor judgement, distractibility, impulsiveness

·      Problems with learning

·      Seizures

How common is fetal alcohol syndrome?

It is estimated that 3.3 million women between ages 15 to 44 are at risk of exposing a developing fetus to alcohol. This number seems very high, but at least one half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.  Similarly, most women won’t know they are pregnant for the first month when they might still be drinking.

According to the CDC the rate of fetal alcohol syndrome is so high because women of childbearing age are sexually active, drink and are not using birth control.  Furthermore, according to their surveys, even three in four women actively trying to get pregnant, continue drinking after they stop using birth control.  The CDC says alcohol can permanently harm a developing baby before a woman knows she is pregnant.  And currently, there is no known safe level of alcohol at any stage of pregnancy.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women refrain from alcohol completely while pregnant.  Alcohol can quickly reach the fetus’s underdeveloped liver and brain through the placenta causing the developmental issues we outlined previously.  The severity of this can be seen in that fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, affect one in 20 school age children.  Furthermore, alcohol use in pregnancy costs the United States $5.5 billion a year.  This costly health issue should also stimulate doctors to routinely screen women regarding their alcohol use, both before and during pregnancy.