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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is a name given to a range of conditions that occur in children born to mothers who drank alcohol at some time during their pregnancy.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is a name given to a range of conditions that occur in children born to mothers who drank alcohol at some time during their pregnancy.
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Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can seriously harm your unborn child and result in a wide range of negative effects and birth defects. These are collectively known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

What are fetal alcohol spectrum disorders?

FASD includes fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), partial FAS, alcohol-related birth defects and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders.

FAS is on the most extreme end of the spectrum. It applies to children with certain facial abnormalities and various birth defects, though the symptoms will vary from child to child.

People with FASD can experience lifelong problems, such as learning difficulties, mental illness, and drug and alcohol problems.

What effects does alcohol have on an unborn baby?

When you drink, alcohol passes from your blood through your placenta and to the unborn child, which can seriously affect their development, particularly their brain.

The first trimester is the time when the baby’s organs are developing most quickly, so that is the time of highest risk.

How much you drink matters. The more you drink, the more likely it is that the baby will suffer some harm and it doesn’t matter whether you drink steadily every day, or have a binge on the weekend. Both are harmful.

If you’re planning a pregnancy or know you are pregnant, avoiding alcohol altogether is the best way to prevent FASD.

How will I know if my child has been affected by alcohol?

FASD is known as a ‘hidden harm’ because it is a physical brain-based condition that often goes undetected. Sometimes the harm is put down to other conditions.

FASD might not be obvious when your baby is born, and it’s only as your child gets older that behavioural and learning difficulties become noticeable.

If you drank during your pregnancy and your school-aged child has unusual ‘problem’ behaviours, you may want to look into FASD. Doctors can use the Australian Guide to the Diagnosis of FASD to help diagnose this condition. Identifying FASD early is important in helping to manage a lifelong condition.

How can parents/carers support their child's development?

Once your child has been diagnosed with FASD, strategies and interventions are available to support their development. Although there is no single treatment for FASD, you can help ensure that your child has access to appropriate medical and social support to manage symptoms.

The NOFASD website has a lot of information about treatment and how to get support.

Tips for avoiding alcohol during pregnancy

It can be hard to avoid alcohol in social situations, particularly in the earlier stages when others might not know about your pregnancy. You may also feel pressured to behave like you normally would, which may include drinking.

Pregnancy is a natural stage of life and shouldn’t stop you from socialising. But if you’re in a situation where drinking is involved, a good alternative is to have a non-alcoholic drink you enjoy. You might also find it helpful to say something like:

  • No, thank you, I’m not drinking tonight.
  • No, thank you, I have to drive.
  • I have a big day/early meeting tomorrow so no thanks.
  • I’m not feeling the best so would rather not, thanks.

If you are used to drinking at home, perhaps at the end of the day to relax, you might consider alternatives like taking a bath, going for a walk or reading a book.

What support is available for parents/carers of a child with FASD

It’s not easy to raise a child with FASD. However, you can find help and support through organisations like the Russell Family Fetal Alcohol Disorders Association. It runs online support groups as well as face-to-face support groups in some parts of Australia.

You can also get support through NOFASD, which has networks and forums where you can meet and talk to parents in similar situations.

Last reviewed: September 2016

Recommended links

Need more information?

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Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders - web fact sheet - Drug Prevention & Alcohol Facts - DrugInfo

Fact sheet explaining the different types of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

Read more on Alcohol and Drug Foundation website

Key facts FASD Alcohol AOD Knowledge Centre Australian Indigenous Alcohol and Other Drugs Knowledge Centre

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a diagnostic term used to describe the range of mental and physical effects on the developing unborn baby that are caused by drinking alcohol during pregnancy

Read more on Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet website

FASD Support groups

Here is a list of local and international organisations that provide a FASD support service as part of the work that they do.

Read more on NOFASD - National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder website

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