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What exactly *is* Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Posted Jun 18 2010 5:36am
You hear the words "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome" or "FAS" tossed around a lot in the media.

But what exactly IS it?

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a pattern of mental and physical defects which develops in some unborn babies when the mother drinks excessive alcohol during pregnancy.The ingestion of alcohol does not always result in FAS, but no amount of alcohol whatsoever is proven safe for consumption during pregnancy. The current recommendation of both the US Surgeon General and the UK Department of Health is not to drink alcohol at all during pregnancy.

FAS is most accurately diagnosed by a physician with training in genetics or dysmorphology. It is based only on history and clinical findings – there is no lab test for diagnosis. The criteria that the doctor uses are 1) specific features of the body and face; 2) behavioral and cognitive characteristics; and 3) alcohol exposure. A child must match criteria in each of these areas for confirmation of diagnosis of FAS.

1) Specific features of the body and face – FAS usually causes a child to grow slowly and remain small for their age through most of childhood, and often into adulthood. The first thing a doctor looks for is growth deficiency (including low weight, short height) and a small head circumference. In addition to this, a doctor will look for a pattern of facial features that includes small eyes, a short nose, a long, flat philtrum (that’s that divot on your upper lip, right below your nose), and a flat facial profile.

2) Behavioral and cognitive characteristics – FAS children tend to think and behave differently than other kids, so doctors will also look for behavioral signs. They think and behave differently because of central nervous system abnormalities caused by the effect alcohol had on their developing brain. These abnormalities, which include microcephaly (abnormally small head) and brain malformation, lead to behavioral dysfunction, intellectual impairment (including learning disabilities and mental retardation), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, and poor memory. Doctors may request neuropsychological tests to determine if a child has any of these symptoms.

3) Alcohol exposure – And finally, in order for a child to be diagnosed with FAS, the mother must have consumed alcohol while pregnant with that child. FAS can’t be diagnosed without this information, so a doctor determine if she consumed alcohol during her pregnancy through her history.

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