Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)

Foetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS, is a congenital disorder (present from birth) in children. Its causes are directly linked to maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.

A pregnant woman holding a glass of wine

According to the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR), FAS is said to affect about 3 million people in South Africa, with unpublished reports suggesting that one in four women in the country are heavy alcohol consumers.

Alcohol consumption during pregnancy interferes with the normal delivery of oxygen and nutrition to a baby’s developing tissues and organs, including the brain, and because a foetus metabolises alcohol at a much slower rate than an adult does, this results in the presence of higher blood alcohol concentrations in a developing baby.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy, especially in the first three months, places a baby’s mental and physical development at risk, and may result in permanent damage to the brain, heart, bones and central nervous system.

FAS is the most severe form of the foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), a range of disorders resulting from alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

What are its symptoms?

FAS symptoms range from physical, brain and central nervous system impairments to social and behavioural difficulties, and include the following:

  • Slow physical growth during pregnancy and after birth
  • Vision and hearing difficulties
  • Small head circumference and brain
  • Distinctive facial features including wide-set eyes, very thin upper lip, small upturned nose
  • Poor coordination, balance and memory
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Learning disorders
  • Difficulty concentrating, reasoning and problem solving
  • Poor social skills
  • Problems with behaviour and impulse control

How is it diagnosed?

A FAS diagnosis can only be made once a baby has been born. It may be necessary for the child to be examined by a FASD specialist.

In order to diagnose the condition, a careful assessment needs to be made that examines the following:

  • The consumption of alcohol by the mother during pregnancy
  • The physical appearance of the child – FAS presents with distinct facial features
  • The rate of physical growth of the child and examining whether they are reaching normally accepted milestones
  • The rate of brain growth and development
  • The child’s social development and behaviour

A physical exam of the baby may reveal a heart defect, which is a sign of FAS, while other signs and symptoms may only reveal themselves as the child is growing.

What are your treatment options?

FAS treatment takes the form of managing the condition: there is no cure and typically it lasts a lifetime, but the earlier the condition is diagnosed the sooner management can begin. Early diagnosis and support play a major role in the outcome of the disorder.

This may consist of the following:

  • Speech, occupational and physical therapy to help with the development of walking, talking and day-to-day skills
  • Special schooling to help with behavioural, social and learning issues
  • Treatment/counselling that addresses the mother’s alcohol consumption to prevent FAS affecting future pregnancies
  • Certain medications to alleviate symptoms of, for example, hyperactivity, lack of concentration and depression
  • Medication to treat, for example, heart conditions

Can it be prevented?

FAS is 100% preventable. Women who are pregnant, think they may be pregnant or are trying to become pregnant should cease alcohol consumption completely.

For more info

Foundation for Alcohol Related Research


IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2017