Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), also called fetal alcohol exposure (FAE), is a term used to describe a range of mild to severe problems that a growing fetus can develop if the mother drinks alcohol while she is pregnant. These problems include certain facial changes, such as a small face or narrow eyes; slowed growth; birth defects; and learning and behavior problems.

The type and severity of effects from FASD depends on:

  • How much, how often, and at what stage of her pregnancy the mother drinks alcohol. No amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy. Although the most severe effects—called fetal alcohol syndrome—often are related to heavy alcohol use (5 or more drinks on one occasion), a pregnant woman risks damaging her growing fetus whenever she drinks any amount of alcohol while she is pregnant. An amount of alcohol or a specific time during pregnancy when it is safe to drink has not been identified.
  • The mother's health and habits. A child who is born to a woman who used other drugs, and who had poor health while she was pregnant, is at increased risk for more severe or complicated problems from alcohol exposure.
  • Genetic traits a fetus inherits. Some fetuses are more likely to be harmed by alcohol exposure than others. The reason for this is not clear; however, there may be a genetic link.

Children with the most severe effects from alcohol exposure during pregnancy have fetal alcohol syndrome.

Last Updated: March 17, 2009

Author: Debby Golonka, MPH

Medical Review: Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics & William Gilbert, MD - Perinatology

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