Foetal alcohol syndrome

Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition that a baby may develop if a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy.

If a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy, the alcohol will pass through her blood to her baby through the placenta. The baby can’t process alcohol as well as the mother can. If a woman drinks a lot of alcohol in pregnancy, it can sometimes cause mental and physical problems in the baby. This is called foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

Foetal alcohol syndrome is completely avoidable if you don’t drink during pregnancy. Try not to worry if you have been drinking alcohol and didn’t know you are pregnant. The risk of harm to the baby is likely to be low. The important thing is to stop drinking as soon as possible.

What causes foetal alcohol syndrome?

Studies have shown that heavy drinking during pregnancy, usually measured as repeatedly consuming more than around five units of alcohol (2 large glasses of wine) per day, carries the greatest risk of a baby being affected with FAS.

Are there any other risks of drinking alcohol in pregnancy?

Yes. Drinking heavily during pregnancy can increase the risk of:

The more you drink, the more your baby will be affected and the less healthy your baby will be.

What are the symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome?

A baby with foetal alcohol syndrome may have:

  • a head that's smaller than average
  • certain facial features such as small eyes, a thin upper lip, and a smooth area between the nose and upper lip, though these may become less noticeable with age
  • cerebral palsy
  • learning difficulties, such as problems with thinking, speech or memory
  • mood, attention or behavioural problems, such as autism-like behaviour or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) 
  • problems with the liver, kidneys, heart or other organs
  • hearing and vision problems
  • poor growth – they may be smaller than average at birth, grow slowly as they get older, and be shorter than average as an adult.

These problems are permanent, but early treatment and support can help limit their impact on the child's life.

Can I drink any alcohol during pregnancy?

There is no amount of alcohol that is considered ‘safe’ to drink during pregnancy, so the Chief Medical Officers for the UK recommend that pregnant women don’t drink any alcohol at all. It can be difficult for some women to avoid alcohol, you might find our tips for an alcohol-free pregnancy helpful.

If you do decide to drink alcohol in pregnancy, try to avoid alcohol completely in the first 3 months. This is when the baby’s brain is developing.

It’s never too late to stop drinking. Stopping at any point during pregnancy can help reduce the risk of problems in your baby.

Talk to your doctor or midwife if you are worried about alcohol use during pregnancy, especially if you’re concerned you can’t stop. Remember, they are there to support you and not judge you, so try to be honest about your drinking habits. They can refer you for specialist support if you need it.

Drinking alcohol if you’re trying to get pregnant

As you will not know that you’re pregnant for the first few weeks, doctors recommend to not drink any alcohol at all if you’re actively trying for a baby.

Drinking alcohol is linked to fertility problems in both men and women. If you drink a lot and often, you may find it more difficult to get pregnant.

Treatment for foetal alcohol syndrome

There is no treatment for FAS, and the damage to the child's brain and organs can't be reversed. But an early diagnosis and support can make a big difference.

Speak to your GP or health visitor if you have any concerns about your child's development or think they could have foetal alcohol syndrome. They may be referred to a specialist team for an assessment, which usually involves a physical examination and blood tests.

If FAS is diagnosed, your child will be offered help to meet their needs.

More support and information

NOFAS-UK is a UK support group for people with foetal alcohol syndrome.

Drinkline is a national alcohol helpline. If you're worried about your own or someone else's drinking, call this free helpline on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm).

Addaction is a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals, families and communities manage the effects of alcohol and drug misuse.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a free self-help group. Its "12-step" programme involves getting sober with the help of regular support groups.

 
 

Read more about alcohol in pregnancy

Sources

Clinical Knowledge Summaries. Antenatal care – uncomplicated pregnancy https://cks.nice.org.uk/antenatal-care-uncomplicated-pregnancy#!topicSummary (Page last reviewed: 14/01/2017 Next review due: 14/01/2020) 

The Royal College of obstetricians and gynaecologists (2018) Alcohol and pregnancy https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/patients/patient-leaflets/alcohol-and-pregnancy/

NHS Choices. Foetal alcohol syndrome https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/foetal-alcohol-syndrome/ (Page last reviewed: 10/01/2017. Next review due: 10/01/2020)

The Royal College of obstetricians and gynaecologists (2018) Alcohol and pregnancy https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/patients/patient-leaflets/alcohol-and-pregnancy/

NHS Choices. Drinking alcohol while pregnant https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/alcohol-medicines-drugs-pregnant/ Page last reviewed: 14/01/2017 Next review due: 14/01/2020)  

NICE Guideline (2013) Fertility problems: assessment and treatment National Institute for Health and Care Excellence https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg156

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Last reviewed on May 1st, 2019. Next review date May 1st, 2022.

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