Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome or FAS is one of the leading causes of birth defects nowadays.

What is the definition of fetal alcohol syndrome?

FAS is an after birth disorder manifested by physical, intellectual and behavioral deficits associated with mother’s alcoholism during pregnancy.

What causes fetal alcohol syndrome?

The definite cause of FAS is the alcohol intake of an expectant mother during her pregnancy. Various questions are being asked particularly in Western countries wherein alcohol is usually part of the diet like red wine after meat consumption or intake of alcohol to keep the body warm during a cold weather. Some of these questions are as follows:

Is it alright to consume a minimal amount of alcohol during pregnancy to keep the body warm during cold weather?

What is the minimum amount of alcohol that can be taken during pregnancy to keep the baby safe from FAS?

Will a baby develop FAS if the child’s father is alcoholic?

Will a baby be affected with FAS if the mother is alcoholic yet is not consuming alcohol during pregnancy?

As mentioned earlier, the primary cause of FAS is the pregnant woman’s intake of alcohol during pregnancy. Note the phrase “during pregnancy.” Base on facts, most children diagnosed with FAS are those whose mothers are extremely alcoholic who can consume eight to 10 glasses of alcohol daily. On the other hand, result from studies for occasional drinkers or even those who can consume at least one glass per day during pregnancy shown that children are of low birth weight. However, this is not an assurance that minimal amount of alcohol intake during pregnancy would not really result to FAS. Therefore, any amount of alcohol consumed during pregnancy can possibly risk the baby to develop FAS. In general, it would still be best to avoid alcohol for as long as the child is not yet born.

Furthermore, the mother’s alcoholism before pregnancy won’t contribute to the development of FAS as long as the expectant mother is not consuming alcohol during her pregnancy. Similarly, an alcoholic father has nothing to do with fetal alcohol syndrome unless he forces or influences the pregnant woman to take in alcohol during the course of pregnancy.

However, the alcohol itself is not the direct cause of the signs and symptoms of FAS. The harmful substance that can interrupt the development of the fetus in the uterus, which may eventually cause fetal alcohol syndrome, is the by-product of alcohol metabolism (break down of alcohol). Alcohol has teratogenic property. This means that it is capable of crossing the placental-barrier to cause developmental defects to the fetus. Basically, alcohol by-product targets the brain cells called the neurons. Generally, the brain ends up underdeveloped or deformed. As a result, intellectual deficiency is evident upon the birth of the child and as the child grows up.

What are the signs and symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome?

As alcohol crosses the placental barrier, it disrupts the development of the fetus that may lead to birth defects including intellectual deficiency, physical deformities and behavioral problems. Each of these aspects is manifested by various signs and symptoms which are discussed below.

Intellectual Deficiency

Majority of children affected by FAS manifest mild to moderate mental retardation as the child grows up towards adulthood. This is caused by the malformation of brain during fetal development as an effect of alcohol by-product crossing the placental barrier. The brain is underdeveloped and it is anatomically smaller than the standard size of brain for specific age. Despite of the presence of intellectual deficiency, children with FAS are capable of being educated.

Physical Deformities

Along with brain malformation, the skull of the head is also small to accommodate a smaller size and underdeveloped brain. This condition is called microcephaly or small head size. This defect would cause debilitating functional disabilities to the child such as fine motor impairment.

Furthermore, distinct facial deformities are also evident. These include a flattened philtrum (ridge between the upper lip and nose), thin upper lip (thin vermilion) and decreased width of the eye (decreased palpebral fissures).

In like manner, the child with FAS fails to thrive. The child’s weight and height is lower than what is expected of his age.

Another anatomical deformity observed on children with FAS is the presence of hole between the left and right chambers of the heart. Usually, the foramen ovale (hole or opening connecting the right and left atrium while the fetus is still developing in the uterus) closes after the child’s birth. In children with FAS, there is failure of closure of this structure. As a result, heart murmurs (abnormal heart sound) is heard upon auscultation of the chest of a child with FAS.

Behavioral Problems

Most children with FAS are impulsive. They seem to act without thinking. They also manifest extreme changes of their moods. In relation to mental retardation, children with FAS generally have impaired judgment ability, poor attention and difficulty with socialization.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a preventable disorder. Thus, all mothers must be responsible enough. They should act as early as possible to prevent an expected child to suffer from the devastating birth defects that alcohol can bring.

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