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FASD in Review

FASD Center

Frequently Asked Questions about FASD

Definition and Causes

Issues for Families

Definition and Causes

The term 'Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders' (FASD) describes a range of birth defects that can occur in any baby whose birth mother drank alcohol anytime during pregnancy.

'FASD' is not a diagnosis, but refers to a group of conditions. Even though each condition "or disorder" has unique features, all FASDs can result in physical, mental, and behavior problems, as well as learning disabilities. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is the most common and most serious disorder. Others are Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND) and Partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (pFAS). Other terms used less often include Alcohol-Related Birth Defects (ARBD) and Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE).

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How are FASDs caused?

FASDs can happen only when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol.The alcohol in a pregnant woman’s body crosses into the baby’s blood, which can damage the brain and lead to an FASD.

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How common are FASDs?

Overall, FASDs affect an estimated 40,000 babies every year in the United States. Statistics for specific disorders (all U.S. figures):

  • FAS affects between 5 and 20 per 10,000 live births. Among some Native American tribes, the rate is as high as 15 to 25 per 10,000.
  • FAS, ARND, and ARBD combined affect at least 100 per 10,000 live births.

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How are FASDs prevented?

FASDs are 100% preventable. The only sure way to prevent FASDs is to totally avoid alcohol while trying to get pregnant, during pregnancy, or after having unprotected sex when it is possible to get pregnant. Current research shows that no amount of alcohol is sure to be safe to drink at any time during pregnancy.

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Does heavier drinking during pregnancy cause more harm to the baby?

No amount of alcohol during pregnancy is guaranteed to be safe. However, it is true that women who drink heavily during pregnancy increase the risk of alcohol-related harm to their babies.

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Issues for Families

How are FASDs diagnosed?

Diagnosing FASDs can be difficult. If a birth mother drinks during pregnancy, being honest about her drinking will help her doctor avoid a wrong diagnosis. For the child, the earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome. A doctor can make a diagnosis alone, but may also seek opinions from other experts. The best treatment for FASDs will involve a range of healthcare professionals, such as psychologists, speech pathologists, social workers, and certain kinds of therapists.

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Can FASDs be cured?

No, FASDs cannot be cured, but with proper diagnosis, treatment, and a support network of family and friends, many people with an FASD can learn coping skills and have an improved quality of life.

Are FASDs genetic or hereditary?

There is no evidence that FASDs are hereditary or genetic. In other words, FASDs do not "run in the family."

Can drinking by the father cause an FASD?

Current science shows that an FASD can only happen when a pregnant woman consumes alcohol. Science does not yet show that the father’s drinking prior to conception can cause an FASD. However, there is science that shows that a father’s drinking can affect the genes of the next generation or the one after that 1-3. This process is called epigenetics. The best way a father can help prevent FASD is to help the mother avoid alcohol while she is pregnant, which may require him to reconsider his own drinking habits.

1Haycock, P.C. (2009). Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: The epigenetic perspective. Biology of Reproduction, 81(4), 607-617.
2Hegedus, A. M., Tarter, R. E., Hill, S. Y., Jacob, T., & Winsten, N. E. (1984). Static Ataxia: A possible marker for alcoholism. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 8, 580-582.
3Tarter, R. E., Hegedus, A. M., Goldstein, G., Shelly, C., & Alterman, A. I. (1984). Adolescent sons of alcoholics: Neuropsychological and personality characteristics. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 8, 216-222.

Can an FASD be passed along through breast milk?

Alcohol in breast milk is not linked to FASDs. However, when a woman who is breastfeeding drinks alcohol, some of that alcohol does enter her breast milk. Research shows that alcohol in the milk can harm a child's development, sleep, and learning.

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What costs are associated with FASDs?

  • The estimated lifetime cost of caring for a person with an FASD is between $1.4 million and $1.5 million.
  • For one individual with FAS, the most severe form of FASD, the lifetime cost is estimated at $2 million. The overall costs of FAS for our nation as a whole may be as high as $6 billion each year. These estimates do not include costs such as time lost from work, the burden on families, and poor quality of life.

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What are the main concerns for parents and family of a child with an FASD?

Parents of children with FASDs face unique challenges. A child with an FASD may get into trouble or act out, they may need to be told things many times, and they may do things without understanding the consequences. When they get older, they may not be able to live alone.

However, studies have shown that early diagnosis and a stable, positive environment can improve the outlook for people with an FASD. Several groups have developed materials to help parents and family members.

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Adoptive parents can refer to:

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