Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is an umbrella term describing the effects that can occur in a child whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. It encapsulates conditions previously known as Alcohol Abuse and Seizures (FAS) and the milder form, Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE).

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a medical diagnosis given to newborns with a collection of growth-related physical and mental impairments. It occurs when alcohol in a mother’s bloodstream travels to the fetus through the support structure called the placenta. Doctors routinely warn pregnant women against drinking, stressing that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

In February 2013, U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski, (R-Alaska) and Tim Johnson, (D-South Dakota) introduced a bill to strengthen and improve prevention, research and support services to individuals and families affected by FASD.

The bill reauthorizes activities at the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and provides federal grants for projects to implement the best practices for educating children with FASD within school systems, as well as educating professionals about services for children.

A strong connection

Developing fetuses don’t have the internal structures required to do such things as take in oxygen and other nutrients or eliminate waste, especially during the early stages of pregnancy. In order to take care of these basic needs, they rely on the placenta, an organ-like structure that attaches to the uterine wall and connects to the fetus through the umbilical cord. This cord contains two arteries that channel nutrient-rich blood from the mother’s bloodstream, and a single vein that channels waste-filled blood back to the mother’s bloodstream. Because of the ways in which the umbilical arteries are structured, they pass essentially everything in the mother’s blood to the fetus, including alcohol.

Fetal alcohol syndrome basics

Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when alcohol in the mother’s bloodstream flows through the umbilical cord and enters a developing fetus. Alcohol is toxic to all human beings. Adults have the ability to control this toxic effect by breaking down alcohol molecules inside the liver. Fetuses don’t have this ability, and they must passively endure whatever amount of alcohol is circulating through their mothers’ bloodstream. The effects of this exposure produce damaging changes in development, especially when exposure occurs during the first trimester of pregnancy. According to the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, the fetal damage caused by alcohol consumption has a greater health impact than the damage caused by any other substance of abuse, including heroin and cocaine.

Physical symptoms of FAS in developing fetuses and newborn children include unusually slow growth during the months of pregnancy that follow alcohol exposure, slow growth after birth, small brain size, joint and limb deformities, finger deformities, hearing impairments, vision impairments, impaired body coordination, and defective heart function. In addition, newborns with the syndrome commonly display telltale facial irregularities such as shortened noses, abnormal thinness in the upper lips and lack of the philtrum, a skin depression usually located between the nose and upper lip. Mental symptoms in children born with fetal alcohol syndrome include developmental delays, permanent developmental deficits, a range of learning problems related to the presence of developmental delays or deficits, and behaviors that closely mimic some of the behaviors found in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

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