Foetal alcohol syndrome

Foetal (or Foetal) Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) was first discovered in 1973 by doctors in the United States. The condition describes a number of foetal abnormalities which occur in the babies of women who have abused alcohol during their pregnancy, affecting the way a baby’s brain develops.

‘Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder’ is the umbrella term for the range of preventable alcohol-related birth defects, which are a direct result of prenatal alcohol exposure, and it is used for those who are diagnosed with some, but not all, of the symptoms of FAS.

How many people are affected?

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is believed to affect as many as 1 in 500 babies born in Western countries, with worldwide estimates at 0.97 cases per 1000 births.

The amount of data available for the number of babies affected in the United Kingdom is limited, but information is available on the Hospital Episode Statistics website.

According to the British Medical Association, FASD is in fact the most common, non-genetic cause of learning disability in the UK, although it is often misdiagnosed as autism, Asperger Syndrome or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

What are the signs and symptoms?

The damage caused by alcohol to a developing fetus depends on factors such as the level of alcohol consumed, the pattern of alcohol exposure, and the stage of pregnancy during which alcohol is consumed by the mother.

The effects of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome are lifelong, significantly impacting on the life of the individual and their families. For more details, see the BMA's 'Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders: A guide for healthcare professionals' (PDF).

Children affected by FAS have distinct facial features, which can include a smaller head size, small or narrow eyes and a thin upper lip.  Further symptoms which can present themselves include hearing problems, a weak immune system, epilepsy, liver damage, cerebral palsy or hormonal difficulties.

Children affected by Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), including Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), can also experience learning difficulties, problems with language, a lack of awareness of social boundaries, an inability to grasp instructions, egocentricity, mixing reality and fiction, and hyperactivity and poor attention. Many children experience a range of these behavioural and social difficulties, which without the proper support can lead to difficulties making friends and being left behind at school.

The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (TACT) report that a disproportionate number of looked after children have FASD and are often misdiagnosed as having behavioural problems.

What support is available?

There is no cure for FAS. Children may, however, be referred to paediatricians, who are able to investigate problems further with psychologists, psychiatrists, speech and language therapists, and specialists for organ abnormalities.