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FASD in Review

About FASD

About FASD

What is FASD?

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) are a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These effects can include physical problems and problems with behavior and learning. Often, a person with an FASD has a mix of these problems.

The term FASD is not meant for use as a clinical diagnosis, but rather to refer to the range of effects that can happen to a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. These conditions can affect each person in different ways, and can range from mild to severe.

Cause and Prevention: How Does FASD Happen?

FASD is caused by a woman drinking alcohol during pregnancy. There is no known amount of alcohol that is safe to drink while pregnant. There is also no safe time to drink during pregnancy and no safe kind of alcohol to drink while pregnant. To prevent FASD, a woman should not drink alcohol while she is pregnant, or when becoming pregnant is possible. This is because a woman can get pregnant and not know for several weeks or more (half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned).

Terminology: What Are the Types of FASD?

Different terms are used to describe FASD, depending on the symptoms.

  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): FAS represents the severe end of the FASD spectrum. Fetal death is the most extreme outcome from drinking alcohol during pregnancy. People with FAS might have abnormal facial features, growth problems, and central nervous system (CNS) problems. People with FAS can have problems with learning, memory, attention span, communication, vision, or hearing. They might have a mix of these problems. People with FAS often have a hard time in school and difficulty in social situations.
  • Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND): People with ARND might have intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior and learning. They might do poorly in school and have difficulties with math, memory, attention, judgment, and poor impulse control.
  • Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD): People with ARBD might have problems with the heart, kidneys, or bones, or with hearing. They might have a mix of these.

The term fetal alcohol effects (FAE) was previously used to describe intellectual disabilities and problems with behavior and learning in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. In 1996, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) replaced FAE with ARND and ARBD.

Prevalence: How Many Cases of FASD Are There?

Each year in the United States, an estimated 40,000 babies are born with an FASD, making these disorders more common than new diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010), and a leading preventable cause of intellectual disabilities (Abel & Sokol, 1987). Recent in-school studies suggest that cases of FASD among live births in the U.S., previously reported as approximately 9 per 1,000 (Sampson et al., 1997) could, in reality, be closer to 50 per 1,000 (May, 2009). In addition, recent retrospective analyses of hospital admissions data indicate that under-reporting of alcohol misuse or harm by women may further disguise true prevalence rates (Morleo et al., 2011).

Financial Impact: What Does FASD Cost?

The cost factor of raising a child with an FASD is significant. Amendah and colleagues (2011) found that, for a child with identified FAS, incurred health costs were nine times higher than for children without an FASD. Lupton and colleagues (2004) have estimated the lifetime cost of caring for a person with FAS to be at least $2 million, and the overall annual cost of FASD to the U.S. healthcare system to be more than $6 billion.