Fetal alcohol syndrome isn't a single birth defect. It's a cluster of related problems and the most severe of a group of consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure. Collectively, the range of disorders is known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a common — yet preventable — cause of mental retardation. The severity of mental problems varies, with some children experiencing them to a far greater degree than others.

Signs of fetal alcohol syndrome may include:

  • Distinctive facial features, including small eyes, an exceptionally thin upper lip, a short, upturned nose, and a smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip
  • Deformities of joints, limbs and fingers
  • Slow physical growth before and after birth
  • Vision difficulties or hearing problems
  • Small head circumference and brain size (microcephaly)
  • Poor coordination
  • Mental retardation and delayed development
  • Learning disorders
  • Abnormal behavior, such as a short attention span, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, extreme nervousness and anxiety
  • Heart defects

The facial features seen with fetal alcohol syndrome may also occur in normal, healthy children. Distinguishing normal facial features from those of fetal alcohol syndrome requires expertise.

Doctors may use other terms to describe some of the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. An alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder is a mental or behavioral impairment that occurs as a result of fetal exposure to alcohol. Alcohol-related birth defects are physical defects that occur from fetal alcohol exposure.

When to see a doctor

If you're pregnant and can't stop drinking, ask your obstetrician or other health care provider for help.

Because early diagnosis may help reduce the risk of long-term problems for children with FAS, let your child's doctor know if you drank alcohol while you were pregnant. Don't wait for problems to arise before seeking help.

If you've adopted a child or are providing foster care, you may not know if your child's biological mother drank alcohol while pregnant — and it may not initially occur to you that your child may have fetal alcohol syndrome. However, if your child has learning and behavioral problems, talk with your child's doctor so that the underlying cause might be identified.

May. 21, 2011