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Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

​Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) is an umbrella term used to describe the range of effects that can occur in an individual whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects can have lifelong implications including physical, mental, behavior, and or learning disabilities.

The exact number of children who have an FASD is difficult to determine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates between 800 and 8,000 babies in the U.S. could be born each year with full FAS.

Conditions on the FASD Spectrum

The term FASD encompasses a number of conditions:

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)

FAS is on the most severe end of the FASD spectrum. It describes people with the greatest alcohol effects, causing signs and symptoms so distinct that the diagnosis is based on special measurements and findings in each of the 3 following areas:

  • Three specific facial abnormalities: smooth philtrum (the area between nose and upper lip), thin upper lip, small palpebral fissures (the horizontal eye openings)
  • Growth deficit (lower than average height, weight or both)
  • Central nervous system (CNS) abnormalities (structural, neurologic, functional, or a combination of these)

Partial fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS)

When a person does not meet the full diagnostic criteria for FAS but has a history of prenatal alcohol exposure and some of the facial abnormalities, as well as a growth problem or CNS abnormalities that person is considered to have partial FAS (pFAS).

Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)

People with ARND do not have abnormal facial features or growth problems, but do have problems with how their brain and nervous system were formed as well as how they function. These individuals may have:

In particular, a 2011 federally convened committee that reviewed the science noted that these children are most likely to have problems with neurocognitive development, adaptive functioning, and or behavior regulation.

Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)

People with ARBD have problems with how some of their organs were formed and or how they function, including:

  • Heart
  • Kidney
  • Bones (possibly the spine)
  • Hearing
  • Vision

These individual also may have one of the other FASDs.


FASDs can happen only when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol. The alcohol crosses the placenta and enters the baby’s blood where it can damage the developing brain and other organs leading to an FASD. FASDs are 100% preventable if a woman does not drink alcohol during pregnancy.


It is difficult to diagnosis FASDs, because there is no single or simple test that can cover the broad range of FASD signs and symptoms. Certain physical findings, developmental problems, behavioral concerns, or school failure should trigger the parents and or the pediatric medical home provider or other pediatric developmental specialist to consider FASDs as potential diagnoses. A known history of alcohol consumption during the pregnancy aids in diagnosis but is not required for diagnosis of an FASD.​

Children with an FASD can have brain abnormalities that lead to problems in day-to-day functioning despite having a normal IQ, so a comprehensive evaluation is indicated. All children with involvement in foster care or adoption processes, especially international adoptions, should always be evaluated for a possible FASD.


No one treatment is right for every child, as FASD differs from one child to another. FASDs need a medical home to provide, coordinate, and facilitate all the necessary medical, behavioral, social, and educational services. Many types of available treatments include:

  • Developmental services
  • Educational interventions
  • Behavior modification
  • Parent training
  • Social skills training
  • Medications
  • Other medical therapies
  • Transition planning
  • Advocacy in school and the workplace
  • Referral for community support services

Treatment plans should be adaptable to the child’s and family’s needs, plus include close monitoring and follow-up.

Outlook for Children with FASDs

FASDs last a lifetime. There is no cure for FASDs, but identifying children with FASDs as early as possible can help them reach their potential. Research has shown that early identification and enrollment in treatment can significantly improve an affected child’s development and life.

Additional Resources:

Last Updated
Adapted from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Toolkit (Copyright © American Academy of Pediatrics 2012)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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