Diagnosis

Diagnosing fetal alcohol syndrome requires expertise and a thorough assessment. Early diagnosis and services can help improve your child's ability to function.

To make a diagnosis, your doctor:

  • Discusses drinking during pregnancy. If you report the timing and amount of alcohol consumption, your obstetrician or other health care provider can help determine the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome. Although doctors can't diagnose fetal alcohol syndrome before a baby is born, they can assess the health of the mother and baby during pregnancy.
  • Watches for signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome in your child's initial weeks, months and years of life. This includes assessing physical appearance and distinguishing features of your baby and monitoring your child's physical and brain growth and development.

The doctor also may assess for:

  • Cognitive ability and learning and language development difficulties
  • Health issues
  • Social and behavioral problems

Many features seen with fetal alcohol syndrome may also occur in children with other disorders. If fetal alcohol syndrome is suspected, your pediatrician may refer your child to a developmental pediatrician, a neurologist or another expert with special training in fetal alcohol syndrome for evaluation and to rule out other disorders with similar signs and symptoms.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

The range of consequences from drinking alcohol during pregnancy are collectively called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, as not all signs and symptoms are present in all children with the disorder. This range includes:

  • Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder — intellectual disabilities or behavioral and learning problems caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy
  • Alcohol-related birth defects — physical birth defects caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome — the severe end of the fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which includes both neurodevelopmental disorder and birth defects caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy
  • Partial fetal alcohol syndrome — presence of some signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy, but the criteria for the diagnosis are not met
  • Neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure — problems functioning due to neurocognitive impairments, such as problems with mental health, memory, impulse control, communication and daily living skills, caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy

If one child in a family is diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, it may be important to evaluate his or her siblings to determine whether they also have fetal alcohol syndrome, if the mother drank alcohol during these pregnancies.