What is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

What is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

According to the NHS, drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, premature birth and your baby having a low birth weight. It can also lead to a serious developmental disorder called foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).1

The Chief Medical Officers for the UK recommend not drinking at all if you are pregnant or trying to conceive as it’s not known if there is any safe level of alcohol. The risks are known to increase the more you drink, however.


What is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD, is a term used to describe the permanent effects on the brain, body and development of someone who has been exposed to alcohol substances in the womb.

It can cause physical abnormalities but is often considered a ‘hidden disability’ as most people with the condition do not exhibit shared physical characteristics.

You might also have heard of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This is a commonly used term in the US but in the UK, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder is more commonly used to describe the set of conditions as a whole. Foetal alcohol syndrome was previously used in the UK to clinically describe one of the most severe conditions within the range of FASD.

A University of Bristol study from 2018 estimated that to 17% of children in the UK could have symptoms consistent with FASD. No reliable estimates existed before this study for the prevalence of the condition in the UK.2

According to FASD Network UK, however, the most recent research suggests that for planning and commissioning purposes, the UK should be considering a prevalence rate of 3-4%.3


Symptoms of FASD

The symptoms of FASD can vary widely and, as it affects development, it can have different physical, mental and behavioural impacts.

Some of these impacts may include:

  • Problems with movement and balance
  • Problems with hearing and vision
  • Learning difficulties, including issues with thinking, memory and concentration
  • Difficulty managing emotions and developing social skills
  • Hyperactivity and poor impulse control
  • Communication and speech issues
  • Problems with the joints, muscles and bones
  • Problems with organs including the kidneys and heart4

The most severely affected may also show symptoms such as:

  • Epilepsy
  • Height and weight issues
  • Hormonal disorders
  • Liver damage
  • Mouth, teeth and facial problems
  • Weakened immune system5

Some of these things can show in different ways, with some issues becoming more apparent as the child gets older. They may be slow to learn to speak and show difficulties processing language. They are likely to struggle at school and may be socially vulnerable, with difficulty making or sustaining friendships.

They may become oppositional or defiant when requests are made, display a lack of cause-and-effect logic or produce inconsistent performance – where they appear able to do something one day and not the next. Defensive behaviours can develop, which can lead to problems at school, exploitation, mental health issues, trouble with the law and difficulties maintaining work and independence as they grow older.

According to FASD Network UK, the condition often goes undiagnosed or is diagnosed as a condition such as autism or ADHD, rather than those conditions being recognised as comorbid presentations of FASD.6


How is FASD Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of FASD can be difficult due to the fact that it exhibits differently and can be mistaken for other conditions as mentioned above. If you are worried about your child, you should speak to your GP or health visitor initially. They will need to know whether the child was exposed to alcohol during pregnancy and can refer you to a specialist if they think FASD may be a possibility.

They will check for physical signs of FASD and developmental problems in areas such as:

  • Motor skills
  • Learning and language
  • Mental and social development
  • Memory
  • Attention, hyperactivity and impulse control
  • Educational progress

The specialists will consider whether any existing issues could have other causes, like genetic issues or other conditions. Physical examinations and blood tests may be used to rule out certain genetic conditions that have similar characteristics to FASD. The specialists may also have to monitor the child to see if some issues get better, worse or remain the same as they get older.


Treatment for FASD

There is no specific treatment for FASD as a whole and there is no ‘cure’. The damage cannot be reversed but on diagnosis, healthcare professional teams will be able to assess the child’s needs and suggest various strategies and courses of action. This can help improve behaviours, educational achievement, independence and other areas and may involve community paediatricians.

They will work with psychologists, psychiatrists, speech and language therapists and more. Research has shown that early intervention can help reduce the risks of secondary issues such as mental health problems and addiction later in life.7


What Causes Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder?

If you drink during pregnancy, the alcohol can pass from your bloodstream through the placenta and into your developing baby. Babies are not able to process alcohol like an adult. The liver is one of the last organs to develop and does not mature until near the end of gestation.

Alcohol is known as a ‘teratogen’, which is a substance that has been proven to affect the way a foetus develops. It has a number of harmful effects on a developing foetus, including destroying brain cells and damaging developing organs. Other examples of teratogens are cannabis and cocaine and these should also be avoided during pregnancy.8


Need Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

The current advice is for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive to cut out alcohol entirely, as there is no known safe drinking limit. Having the odd drink does not make you an alcoholic of course, but if you have trouble cutting down or stopping drinking, you might have a problem that needs to be addressed.

If you think you might have a drinking problem or alcohol addiction, it is important to address it – especially if you are pregnant or trying for a baby. Contact us today to find out how we can help at one of our private drug and alcohol rehab centres.




1 https://www.nhs.uk/pregnancy/keeping-well/drinking-alcohol-while-pregnant

2 https://www.bristol.ac.uk/policybristol/policy-briefings/fasd-uk-prevalence/

3, 6 http://www.fasdnetwork.org/what-is-fasd.html

4 https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/foetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorder/

5, 8 https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/alcohol-fertility-and-pregnancy/fetal-alcohol-spectrum-disorder-fasd

7 https://www.academia.edu/20460364/Facing_the_challenge_and_shaping_the_future_for_primary_and_secondary_aged_students_with_Foetal_Alcohol_Spectrum_Disorders_FAS_eD_Project_