Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the condition whereby an unborn fetus is affected by alcohol. The resulting syndrome is a cluster of physical and mental defects. Typically, children born with the fetal alcohol syndrome suffer from distinctive facial deformities, low birth weight, stunted growth, developmental issues and retardation. These issues can cause significant problems for the development of the child physically, behaviorally and mentally.
Alcohol is the only cause of fetal alcohol syndrome and is therefore preventable. If a woman abstains from consuming alcohol throughout her pregnancy, the fetus will not be at risk of developing the syndrome. Excessive drinking, including binge drinking and chronic alcoholism, are known to increase the severity of the symptoms. Women who have alcohol dependency or abuse issues should seek assistance and stop drinking before attempting to get pregnant. Drinking even small amounts of alcohol while pregnant can and will harm the unborn child.
Sadly, there is no cure for fetal alcohol syndrome. Those affected have to learn to live with the consequences of their mother’s alcohol consumption. Some will be able to live normal, healthy, active lives with the support of skills training and other treatments. Others will find it difficult to exist in a world that they do not understand, or that does not understand them.
Causes of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Fetal alcohol syndrome is directly caused by the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. Research has shown that alcohol crosses the placenta from the mother’s blood into the unborn baby’s bloodstream, which means that the fetus shares the same blood alcohol level as the mother. This is incredibly harmful and dangerous. Alcohol has been found to cause serious damage to the development of the nervous system of the fetus and to stunt or kill developing brain cells. It also causes undernourishment of the fetus by blocking essential vitamins, glucose and other nutrients from being absorbed. Research also suggests that alcohol reduces the amount of oxygen available to the baby, which leads to low birth weight, brain damage and other birth defects.
Fetal alcohol syndrome may occur more frequently in women who are young mothers, substance abusers, are from low socio-economic communities or have been the victim of abuse. Education and access to appropriate medical services during pregnancy can help to alleviate the risk. Advise expectant mothers about the risks of fetal alcohol syndrome is also essential.
Signs and Symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Fetal alcohol syndrome is associated with a range of different symptoms which may or may not be apparent at birth. Babies may have a low birth weight, smaller-than-normal head circumference and varied organ dysfunction. Facial abnormalities including smaller eye openings, flattened cheekbones, and indistinct philtrum (an underdeveloped groove between the nose and the upper lip) are often seen.
As the child grows older, they will often exhibit a delay in development, poor coordination skills and behavioral problems. Children are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD or other behavioral conditions. They may begin to show signs of frustration, anxiety and restlessness, all of which are the result of fetal alcohol syndrome’s affect on brain development.
Upon reaching puberty, a child can show serious memory and cognition problems such as poor problem solving skills, an inability to concentrate and the inability to understand concepts related to time and money. They may also show signs of withdrawal. Socialization skills are often very poor, and the child may have problems with language. Many struggle with school, lack respect for authority and may begin to abuse drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Many children who are affected by fetal alcohol syndrome are not diagnosed. They will enter adulthood and experience significant mental health problems and have difficulties fitting in with social groups, holding down jobs or maintaining relationships. Some adults will have learnt coping skills and have access to support networks that work with them and help them overcome some of the difficulties they face.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Adults
Research suggests that fetal alcohol syndrome is the leading known cause of intellectual disability in the Western World. This is a serious public health issue with long-term care required to appropriately educate, house and look after affected individuals. Some studies suggest those with fetal alcohol syndrome are also at risk of developing alcohol or drug abuse issues in the future. This figure may be as high as 35 percent of all fetal alcohol syndrome individuals developing a drug or alcohol addiction. This may be because of the genetic factor associated with alcoholism, or it may be due to the poor cognitive skills caused by the disorder.
Treating Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
There is currently no known treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome. Health experts implicitly state that prevention is the only cure. Some of the behavioral issues can be treated through skill development and cognitive behavior therapy, but these have limitations. The physical defects associated with the condition can be treated with cosmetic surgery, which is expensive and painful. Secondary health concerns associated with the disorder may also need treatment, especially in the case of substance abuse, depression and anxiety.