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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 disorder

4-minute read

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 disorder (FASD).

What is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder?

FASD is the term used to describe the physical and/or neurodevelopmental impairments that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy.

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. The baby’s brain continues to develop throughout pregnancy and drinking alcohol at any time can damage different parts of the brain. There is no level of drinking alcohol that can be guaranteed to be completely 'safe' or 'no risk'. There is no ‘safe time’ to drink alcohol during pregnancy.

How much you drink matters. The more you drink, the more likely it is that the baby will suffer some harm. The more alcohol and the more frequently alcohol is consumed during pregnancy, the higher the risk of FASD.

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 '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 strategies that can lead to better outcomes for children with FASD 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, there are a number of organisations in Australia that are avaialble for help and support.

National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (NOFASD) Australia - information, videos and other resources for families caring for someone with FASD, adults who may have FASD, and professionals supporting those with FASD. NOFASD Australia also has a national helpline available 7 days a week on 1800 860 613.

FASD Hub Australia - provides information, tools and resources for Australian health professionals, teachers, justice professionals, service providers and researchers as well as parents and carers.

Russell Family Fetal Alcohol Disorders Association - online support groups and face-to-face support groups in some parts of Australia.

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Last reviewed: June 2018

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