Home Become a Certified Provider Resource Manual Module 4: DIAGNOSES Fetal Alcohol Syndrome / Fetal Alcohol Effect

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome / Fetal Alcohol Effect

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a result of the effect of alcohol on the brain and other developing organs of the fetus, which causes the physical and mental abnormalities that, characterize this disorder.  The major characteristics of FAS include both prenatal and postnatal growth deficiency, delay of gross and fine motor development (often associated with mental retardation), and congenital malformations, some of which result in a characteristic facial appearance. Individuals with Fetal Alcohol Effect (FAE) have less dramatic physical abnormalities, but share many of the same behavioral and psychosocial characteristics of those persons born with FAS. FAS is a direct result from exposure of the fetus to alcohol during pregnancy, and is presently the leading cause of mental retardation in the United States. The developing fetus absorbs alcohol at the same concentration as the mother during pregnancy.  However, the fetal blood alcohol level remains much higher than the mothers for a longer period of time. It is unknown how much alcohol it takes to cause FAS or FAE.

Incidence rates for FAS vary, ranging from 1.9 to 9.8 cases per thousand live births.  It has been estimated that between 44% of all women who drink heavily will have a child with FAS.  Of the other 56%, some with have FAE, minor learning disabilities and/or behavioral difficulties. Most children with FAS are not identified until later infancy or childhood. Many are never identified.

Children with FAS are usually small at birth and continue to grow poorly. In addition, they often have delays in motor and mental development and may exhibit behavior problems such as hyperactivity. Physical, cognitive, and social abnormalities associated with this syndrome include:
  • Small head, eyes and mouth, as well as droopy eyelids
  • A wide space between the nose and upper lip, a thin upper lip
  • Occasionally a cleft palate
  • Congenital heart disease
  • An exaggerated startle response
  • Poor wake and sleep patterns
  • Hyperactivity, distractibility and attention deficits;
  • Temper tantrums
  • Impulsiveness
  • Lying and stealing behaviors
  • Poor social skills
  • Poor abstracting skills
  • Processing problems including input, memory, integration, and output of information.

Children with FAS / FAE do best with a highly consistent routine. The same activities should occur at the same time each day. When the routine is changed, preparing the child as much as possible in advance will ease transitions. Activity-based learning is important. Use all the senses (touching, movement, seeing, hearing, smelling) to stimulate learning. The use of pictures, music, and kinesthetic activities has been known to enhance learning for children with FAS / FAE.


Funding for this program provided by the Department of Health and Human Services