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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

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) affects your brain and causes lifelong problems.
  • The only way to prevent FASD is to not drink alcohol while you are pregnant.
  • FASD is considered an invisible disability as it is often undiagnosed.

What is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder?

FASD is a whole-body condition. It affects your ability to:

  • think
  • learn
  • focus attention
  • manage behaviour
  • manage emotions

People with FASD can have lifelong problems, such as:

What are the symptoms of FASD?

The symptoms of FASD vary from person to person. This is because the symptoms depend on when the alcohol was used during pregnancy and how much alcohol was consumed.

FASD might not be obvious when your baby is born.

Behavioural and learning differences

It’s only as your baby gets older that you may see differences in their behaviour and learning difficulties. Sometimes these are put down to other conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism.

Facial differences

If your baby is exposed to alcohol during the first trimester of pregnancy it can affect how their face grows. They might have one or more of the following:

  • small eyes
  • smooth philtrum (the ridges between their upper lip and nose)
  • a thin upper lip

However, most people with FASD do not have these facial differences.

How is FASD diagnosed?

FASD is often seen as an ‘invisible disability’. This is because it is often undetected.

Consider having your child tested for FASD if:

  • there is a history of drinking alcohol before the pregnancy was known about
  • there is a history of drinking alcohol during pregnancy
  • your child is not growing and developing as expected
  • your child is having learning or behavioural problems
  • your child is having problems getting along with others
  • your child has the FASD facial features

You can also record your reflections on your child in the FASD — A Checklist tool. This can help with the assessment and diagnosis.

FASD is diagnosed by a multidisciplinary team. You will need a referral to get an appointment with an FASD clinic or FASD-informed service.

Doctors can use the Australian Guide to the Diagnosis of FASD to help diagnose this condition.

An FASD diagnosis can:

  • help caregivers better understand their child and find the best support and services
  • help teachers

Diagnosing FASD early is important in helping your child reach their full potential.

The best results happen when parents are supported to understand that their child’s behaviour is a symptom of brain damage.

Can FASD be prevented?

Current Australian guidelines recommend that you do not drink alcohol while pregnant. This is because drinking alcohol when pregnant can seriously harm your baby.

When you drink, alcohol passes from your blood through the placenta and to your baby. This can seriously affect their growth, particularly their brain. It can cause a wide range of birth defects. These are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

If you’re planning a pregnancy or know you are pregnant, not drinking alcohol is the best way to prevent FASD.

How can I support my child's development?

Once your child has been diagnosed with FASD, there are services that can support their development. These can include:

There is no single treatment for FASD. You can help your child to manage their symptoms by accessing the medical and social support they need. Your doctor will help you decide which of these services are best for your child.

The NOFASD website has a lot of information about strategies that can lead to better results for children with FASD. Children with a FASD diagnosis can be supported to go to school, get a job and have relationships.

What support is available to support my child with FASD?

It’s not easy to raise a child with FASD. However, several organisations in Australia offer support for parents of children with FASD.

The National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (NOFASD) Australia has: information, videos and other resources for:

  • families caring for someone with FASD
  • adults who may have FASD
  • professionals supporting those with FASD

NOFASD Australia also has a national helpline on hand 7 days a week on 1800 860 613.

The FASD Hub Australia — also offers information and resources for:

  • Australian health professionals
  • teachers
  • parents and carers

The Russell Family Fetal Alcohol Disorders Association — organises online and face-to-face parent support groups.

You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 and speak with a maternal child health nurse. They can give you advice and support about FASD.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2022


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