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What is Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD)?

FASD (Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder) can have a serious, long-term impact on a baby’s growth and development. Around 7,000 (1 per cent) of UK babies have FASD. It’s important that parents and carers and those working with the child are aware of the condition and how it may affect a child’s development, learning and behaviour.

Definition of FASD

FASD is a spectrum disorder or umbrella term for a range of defects which a baby can suffer if their mother drank alcohol while pregnant. It is one of the leading causes of learning disability in the UK and one of the leading causes of birth defects in newborn babies.  The individual conditions under this umbrella term are:

  • Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND)
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD)
  • Foetal Alcohol Effects (FAE)
  • Partial Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (PFAS)

Sometimes FASD is detectable at birth, especially if severe and life-threatening.

Early diagnosis of FASD is crucial

FASD is often compared to autism because of the scale of different defects within the spectrum. Some babies with FASD may have severe, life-shortening symptoms which can be detected at birth, while others will show the effects much later in life. If parents and carers know the signs to look out, it means a child can be properly diagnosed. Early diagnosis limits the impact the condition will have on their long-term learning and development.

What are the effects of FASD on children?

FASD can have a wide-ranging impact on a newborn’s health and development. When alcohol passes into the foetus, it circulates through the bloodstream, killing brain cells and damaging the nervous system. It can also cause abnormal growth defects and facial disfigurement – all through exposure to alcohol.

Some of the most common defects and symptoms caused by FASD include:

  • Learning disabilities – affecting a child’s academic performance, attention span, organisation, and ability to read and write.
  • Balance and hearing problems
  • Abnormal growth and development – height and weight issues are common in FASD sufferers
  • Liver damage
  • Weak immune system
  • Epilepsy
  • Kidney and heart problems
  • Mouth, teeth and facial defects

Not all children will have the same symptoms and, even if they do, it may still affect their quality of life differently. Among the most difficult FASD defects to spot are neurological problems, which could hinder a child’s learning, development, behaviour and relationships in later life.

Symptoms: how to identify if your baby or child has FASD

If FASD isn’t detected at birth, the condition gets more difficult to spot and diagnose correctly as a child gets older. An accurate and timely diagnosis can vastly improve a child’s chances of living a normal life, so it’s important that parents and carers know some of the signs to look for.

  • A slow rate of growth – FASD causes growth defects which can affect a child all the way to early adulthood. If you’re concerned your child isn’t growing at the normal rate, it could be worth getting them checked over by your GP.
  • Hyperactivity, poor social skills or lack of focus – This is where diagnosing FASD can get difficult. The condition shares similarities with other learning disabilities, so your child may need to sit several tests before an accurate diagnosis can be made. If they aren’t behaving well in school or struggle in the classroom, it’s worth talking to their doctor.
  • Sight and hearing problems – Alcohol-related birth defects can affect a child’s sight and hearing at any age, and problems may be undetectable until they’re older. Does your child often struggle to hear you or sometimes seems lost in thought? It could be a sign of FASD.
  • Poor hand-eye coordination – Does your child fall over a lot, or perhaps they’re always dropping things? Excessive clumsiness and poor coordination are among the most common symptoms of FASD in young people.
  • A distinct facial shape – FASD can result in a child being born with a mild facial deformity, which may not appear that obvious until they’re in their teens. This is characterised by small, wide-set eyes, a thin upper lip, a smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose, and other unusual facial features.

If you have concerns about your child, it’s always worth speaking to their doctor, as well as any other medical professional involved. They are best placed to look into the child’s family and medical history.