Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) include such conditions as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), including partial FAS (pFAS); fetal alcohol effects (FAE); alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND); and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD). These conditions result in varying degrees of physical, mental, and behavioral problems that may develop in a child whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. FASDs are the most common known cause of intellectual disability in the United States.

Sarah, Child of Alcohol

Sarah was quiet and never caused any trouble in elementary school, but she had few friends and never fit in. Although she got fair grades, the teachers never knew how difficult the lessons were for her. When Sarah got to high school, however, she stopped trying to learn the lessons that were difficult for her, and she just barely graduated. Sarah had fetal alcohol effects (FAE), which were the result of her mother's drinking alcohol during pregnancy.

A person with FAE has some of the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), but not enough to be diagnosed with the full syndrome * . Many of Sarah's teenage friends outgrew their immaturity, forgetfulness, and learning problems, but Sarah did not. The effects of her mother's drinking while pregnant with Sarah continue to follow Sarah throughout her life.

Not everyone with FAS or FAE has been identified, and researchers estimated that as many as 1 in every 500 children born in the United States may have FAE or FAS as of 2016. FAE and FAS are not contagious.

What Causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Alcohol use during pregnancy can cause FAS. When a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy, it can have a range of effects on the fetus * , from subtle symptoms, such as Sarah had, to full FAS. FAS is a group of similar characteristics found in affected babies. These characteristics may include low birth weight, distinctive facial features, learning problems, and intellectual disability.

Like most drugs, alcohol passes through the mother's placenta * directly into the fetal bloodstream. In the fetus, alcohol slows down the central nervous system and is broken down by the immature liver of the fetus, which cannot handle this poisonous substance effectively. Alcohol stays in the fetus for a long period, even after it has left the mother's body.

Basics about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Basics about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs).” Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/features/prevalence-at-risk.html (accessed August 20, 2015).

What Happens When Babies Have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Facial characteristics

Babies with FAS have a distinctive appearance. Characteristics may include:

Other characteristics

The general characteristics associated with FAS may include:

Fetal alcohol effects

Children with FAE may not have the facial and physical characteristics of children with FAS, but they do have many of the same behavior and learning problems caused by prenatal alcohol exposure.

How Can Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Be Prevented?

FAS is 100 percent preventable. A pregnant woman should not drink alcohol because there is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant. All types of alcohol are equally harmful, including all wines and beer. When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, so does her baby.


In 1973, researchers at the University of Washington named the group of symptoms that can result from alcohol use during pregnancy “fetal alcohol syndrome.” In 1987, the U.S. Surgeon General said that no known safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy exists. Among those who issued earlier warnings were:

See also Alcoholism • Birth Defects: Overview • Cleft Palate • Intellectual Disability • Prematurity


Books and Articles

Catterick, Maria, Liam Curran, and Ed Riley. Understanding Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder: A Guide to FASD for Parents, Carers and Professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2014.

Wenner, Melinda Moyer. “How Much Alcohol Is Safe for Expectant Mothers?” Scientific American, January 4, 2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-much-alcohol-is-safe-forexpecting-mothers (accessed June 9, 2016).


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs).” http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/ (accessed December 7, 2015).

Connecticut Clearinghouse. “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders/Prenatal Drug Exposure.” Connecticut Center for Prevention, Wellness and Recovery. https://www.ctclearinghouse.org/Topics/topic.asp?TopicID=53 (accessed December 7, 2015).


March of Dimes. 1275 Mamaroneck Ave., White Plains, NY 10605. Telephone: 914-997-4488. Website: http://www.marchofdimes.org (accessed December 7, 2015).

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 5635 Fishers Ln., MSC, 9304, Bethesda, MD 20892-9304. Telephone: 301-4433860. Website: http://www.niaaa.nih.gov (accessed December 7, 2015).

National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. 1200 Eton Court, NW, Third Floor, Washington, DC 20007. Toll-free: 800-66-NOFAS. Website: http://www.nofas.org (accessed December 7, 2015).

* syndrome is a group or pattern of symptoms or signs that occur together.

* fetus (FEE-tus) is the term for an unborn human after it is an embryo, from nine weeks after fertilization until childbirth.

* placenta (pluh-SEN-ta) is an organ that provides nutrients and oxygen to a developing baby; it is located within the womb during pregnancy.

* cleft palate is a gap or split in the roof of the mouth (the palate). It occurs when the palate of a fetus does not develop properly during the first months of pregnancy.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)