Alcohol Addiction and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Pregnant mother with her daughter

One in 100 babies born have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). This is almost the same rate of occurrence as that of Autism. Prevalence of FAS exceeds that of Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, SIDS, Cystic Fibrosis and Spina Bifida combined.

Given these statistics, FAS has emerged as the leading preventable cause of birth defects, developmental abnormalities and learning disabilities.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the prevalence of FAS in the general population falls in a range of 0.2 to 7 cases per 1,000 children, and 2 percent to 5 percent for the entire continuum of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

FASD is the variable spectrum of effects associated with prenatal exposure to alcohol. It includes alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, alcohol-related birth defects, fetal alcohol syndrome and partial fetal alcohol syndrome.

The costs for 1 child with FAS are estimated to be $2 million over a lifetime, and costs of FAS to the American taxpayer are more than $321 million each year.

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)?

Exceedingly negative fetal, neonatal and pediatric effects emerge as a result of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. This condition is FAS. It causes brain damage and growth problems. The problems caused by FAS vary from child to child. The defects caused by FAS, however, are permanent.

The pattern of malformation, in relation to excessive alcohol exposure, was first described by Lemoine et al in 1968. The matter was first brought to attention in U.S. by Jones and Smith in 1973.

Consumption of alcohol during pregnancy, regardless of the amount or frequency, has never been known to be safe.

Any alcohol intake during pregnancy, poses significant risks of FAS to the baby.

The severity of the symptoms fluctuates amongst children, as some experience the effects at a far greater level than others. The diagnosis of FAS is largely dependent upon the prognosis in the following 3 areas:

Distinguished facial anomalies, growth retardation, and impaired central nervous system (cognitive impairment, learning disabilities, or behavioral abnormalities).

Physical Abnormalities

  • Distinguished facial features, characterized by wide-set eyes, unusually thin upper lip, a short, upturned nose, and smooth skin surface between the nose and upper lip
  • Deformed joints, limbs and fingers
  • Deficient physical growth prior to and post birth
  • Problems with vision or hearing
  • Small head circumference and brain size
  • Issues with the heart, kidneys and bones
  • Brain and central nervous system problems

Intellectual and Cognitive Disabilities

  • Affected coordination or balance
  • Intellectual disability, learning disorders and delayed development
  • Poor memory
  • Lack of attention and trouble with processing information
  • Hindered reasoning and problem-solving
  • Inability to acknowledge consequences of choices
  • Poor judgment skills
  • Shakiness or hyperactivity
  • Rapid mood fluctuations

Social and Behavioral Issues

  • Problems at school
  • Troubled interactions and relationships with others
  • Poor social skills
  • Inability to adapt to change or multitask
  • Behavioral problems and poor impulse control
  • Lost track of time
  • Problems focusing on a task
  • Difficulty planning or working toward a goal

How Alcohol Addiction Affects the Fetus

Once alcohol has been ingested, it enters the bloodstream to cross the placenta and quickly reaches the developing fetus. Numerous studies have shown identical alcohol concentrations at both the fetal and maternal levels, indicating an unrestricted movement of alcohol that functioned in both directions between the two entities.

This leads to higher blood alcohol concentrations in the developing fetus because it metabolizes alcohol slower than the adult does. In fact, the fetus apparently depends on the maternal hepatic detoxification because the fetal liver metabolizes alcohol at a rate less than 10 percent of that in the adult liver.

What makes matters worse is that the amniotic fluid is equivalent to a reservoir for alcohol, increasing and intensifying the fetal exposure.

The spectrum of negative effects on all organ systems of the fetus remain inconclusive. Ethanol can influence fetal development by interrupting cellular differentiation and growth, disrupting DNA and protein synthesis and inhibiting cell migration.

The intermediary metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats is modified. Transfer of amino acids, glucose, folic acid, zinc and other nutrients across the placental barrier is limited, indirectly affecting fetal growth due to intrauterine nutrient deprivation.

A Canadian study assessed 26 children, between the ages of 6 and 14 years, and 32 control children. Keiver et al unearthed significantly elevated cortisol levels in those who were exposed to high prenatal exposure to alcohol in comparison to those with little or no prenatal alcohol exposure and the control group.

The investigators suggest these findings provide evidence for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) dysregulation that can result in long-term psychological and medical irregularities.

Alcohol also interrupts the provision of oxygen and necessary nutrition to the baby’s developing tissues and organs, including the brain.

Abnormalities of facial features, the heart, bones and other organs, including the central nervous system can emerge due to drinking alcohol while in the first trimester. That time is critical for the development of the fetus. Regardless, the risk of FAS is present at any time during pregnancy.

Further adverse effects of heavy alcohol use include increased risk for placental abruption, premature delivery, amnionitis, stillbirth and sudden infant death syndrome.

Treatment and Damage-control

There exists no cure or particular treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome. The physical defects and mental deficiencies usually prevail for rest of the life.

Early intervention strategies, however, can assist in the reduction and management of some of the symptoms and prevent few of the secondary disabilities that can emerge as a result.

These intervention services include special education, speech, physical and occupational therapy, family counseling, medications aimed at certain symptoms and accessible medical care.

The root problem remains to be the alcohol use disorder of the mother and failure to manage alcohol intake during pregnancy. If there exists a potential alcohol use disorder, education, intervention, and alcohol treatment are vital to protecting the unborn baby.


Sana Ahmed photoAbout the Author:

A journalist and social media savvy content writer with wide research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana Ahmed has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute focusing on mental health and addiction recovery, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. The art of using words to educate, stir emotions, create change and provoke action is at the core of her career, as she strives to develop content and deliver news that matters.



The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 26, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 7, 2017
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About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.